Edited by Bozant Katzakian
In 1994, the internet hadn’t been mainlined, cell phones were only for business and MTV still played music videos. At first glance, Reality Bites is a time capsule from the early part of that decade. The fashions and styles are dated i.e. the unflattering baby doll dresses but the dilemmas of these early 20-something characters still ring true in the 21st century.
The film’s focus is to grasp the sentiments of the time. People graduating from college with less of the optimism of the 80’s but still entrenched in the consumer culture. It’s tapping into what would be so prevalent now: the uselessness of a college degree that, unlike previous generations, didn’t secure a future. You’ve got Vickie (Janeane Garofalo) working at the GAP and Lelaina (Winona Ryder) after losing her production assistant job finds scarcity in anything involving her field. If we had more backstory for Sammy (Steve Zahn) we’d probably learn he’s a barista. From the beginning speech Lelaina gives at graduation, the foundation is laid that she is speaking for a generation whose answer to all the questions of life, career and relationships is “I don’t know” and this film is about navigating that question mark.
Reality Bites’ A- story line involves Lelaina caught in a love triangle between her long time friend and philosophical slacker Troy (Ethan Hawke) and a yuppy TV exec Michael (Ben Stiller). At first, the emotions feel one dimensional but these relationships are more symbolic than literal. The male personalities are supposed to signify the world’s she’s caught between, wanting to have a steady job, being part of traditional society or being the laid back, starving artist type. Lainey is enticed by Michael who on their first date takes her to a nice restaurant but following that date Troy looks deep into her eyes and says the things Lainey has been wanting to here. It’s done semi-mockingly but it shows the contrasts. Michael can present material things she wants but Troy personifies her real emotional desires. Troy is meant to be genuine because he functions on pure emotion while Michael is fake because he works for a corporation and in the film’s eyes can’t understand Lainey’s creativity.
The film is obsessed with the concept of consumerism and selling out. There is an outrageous amount of brand recognition from the classic line “Evian is naive spelled backwards” to the Big Gulp date in the back of Michael’s car. The camera is drawn to all these labels that just pop on screen. There is an emphases on all these brands because they’re inherently a part of our culture. These brands are such a familiar and integrated part of our lives. Much like the irony that Lainey does not know how to define, she shouldn’t be upset when Michael’s network In Your Face inserts abrasive product placement into her documentary.
While consumerism hasn’t waned in our time neither has the inability to live up to our parents standards. Lainey’s father criticizes her that her “generation lacks work ethic” which I can only imagined he’d say about me if he saw me staring at a computer screen all day. This line comes from the same father who gave her a car and a gas card for her graduation.Lainey never comes off as upper class, but it’s a very nice gift that even her mother objects to. Also if you were wondering the brand of car, it’s a BMW.
Even with the older generation’s distain, these Gen X-ers are so nostalgic for the 70’s, a decade they would have been babies through. We see Vickie’s room plastered with Boston and Bee Gees records, the friends play drinking games with Good Times episodes and even Michael, the square has a treasured Planet of the Ape’s Doctor Zaius doll. No generation is immune to the power of nostalgia with that comes with the disdain of the decade they feel stuck in. Lainey and Vickie worry about their lives turning into a “bad episode of Melrose place with chokers and halter tops” they say while wearing vintage outfits. How easy it would be to label Lainey and Vickie hipsters by today’s standards.
Overall the film rails against selling out and the complaining of the older generation. Lainey gets back on her feet is utilizing that gas card to pump gas for customers and make tip off each purchase and in the end it is Troy, not Michael, who goes after her. The bohemian lifestyle fights for her affection and wins. The film ends with boxes packed and Lainey moving on to a future we don’t know and I doubt she does either but she’s happy.
I love this movie because it’s still relatable. Aside from references and fashion, these characters deal with identical problems of life choices I deal with today. I am a college dropout like Troy, a nostalgia hound like Vickie and always questioning like Lainey, never sure where life will go or where I want to. Much like the title infers, life sucks but we find ways to enjoy it with the people around us. Five bucks and good conversation.