Written by Helen Childress and helmed by Ben Stiller (his directorial debut), Reality Bites focuses on Generation X and effectively encapsulates the era of the early nineties. From the word go it was clear this nostalgic romp would cart a viewer down a dull river of Gen-X blues, concentrating on the depressing career and lifestyle choices confronted by these specific youths. Stiller's first effort as a director is a straightforward, independent-style movie about a love triangle that seems keen to impart a strong message: life is dismal and tough when you're young. The picture emphasises this message, but with such a bleak tenor it doesn't even offer a glimmer of hope. Time has been surprisingly good to Reality Bites; its themes still potent and music still beguiling (at least in my eyes). At the end of the day, however, stripped away of its hyped relevance the film possesses little to make it superior to your average, generic rom-com. Interestingly, the title of Reality Bites is irritatingly ambiguous: does it imply that life bites or does it purport that small bites of reality are presented within?
Reality Bites primarily concentrates on four Gen-X youths fresh out of college (three graduating, one not). Lelaina (Ryder), more or less the main character, is a disillusioned young girl in the process of making a pseudo-documentary on the lives of her friends that focuses on post-college life. She acts as an intern for the insufferable host of a Good Morning programme, but her aspirations are far higher. Troy (Hawke), a grungy, unemployed slacker who failed to graduate from college, is her best friend who moves into her apartment after being fired from his latest job. Also living with Lelaina is Vickie (Garofalo); a woman who has disregarded her morals and has become manager of The Gap, but who's also paranoid she might have AIDS. Then there's Sammy (Zahn) who's confused about his sexuality.
Lelaina meets a tense young studio executive named Michael (Stiller) who takes an immediate shine to her. But Troy doesn't approve of this relationship as he harbours unspoken feelings for Lelaina underneath his slacker veneer. As a love triangle forms, Lelaina must choose which she values the most - an affluent life of materialism with Michael, or a possibly unstable life of philosophical musings with Troy.
By its conclusion, Reality Bites is unsuccessful in demonstrating any positive outcome one can experience in life, even if it means one has to place their ego aside momentarily. Michael offers Lelaina a wonderful opportunity, and I personally feel she should have accepted it. But no - the ending is instead a big dud.
Director Stiller and screenwriter Helen Childress (who was 19 when she completed the script) endeavoured to capture the lives of Gen-X youths with brutal honesty in this film, and they succeed. The lives of these young people are actually quite mundane, however. Granted, Gen-X youths lived mundane lives, but these characters are feebly written. The four friends living together speak in confusing, poetic riddles. Some lines are quotable ("There's no point to any of this. It's all just a random lottery of meaningless tragedy and a series of near escapes"), other instances are unnecessary and ultimately seem forced ("You've reached the winter of our discontent"). In addition, the characters are very poorly delineated. The heroine comes across as whiney and full of contradictions (she's valedictorian of her college class, yet isn't able to continue her speech with palm-cards missing, not to mention she's curiously inarticulate and embarrassingly coy on dates). Troy is the ultimate definition of a lay-about loser (he didn't even graduate from college!), but he spouts wisdom incessantly. Despite a charismatic portrayal courtesy of Ethan Hawke, he appears to be the character we're supposed to hate. On the other hand, the guy we're supposed to hate (Ben Stiller as Michael) is the only likable guy in the film! By the film's end, Steve Zahn's Sammy and Janeane Garofalo's Vickie also seem merely perfunctory and redundant.
Various critics found the characters inhabiting Reality Bites to be predominantly cookie-cutter and therefore boring. But to me this seems deliberate in order to capture the era faithfully. Gen-X youths were cookie-cutters. In Roger Ebert's review for this production, he discussed the poor filmmaking skill of Lelaina whose footage is frequently nauseating. However, again, this seems deliberate to me, and at no stage does the film attempt to make us believe that Lelaina is a genius of verité cinema. After all, her footage is frequently rejected by professionals, and ultimately made commercial by Michael's company in order for their target audience to enjoy it. On that note, Reality Bites is an insightful picture...it offers an extraordinary glimpse of the cultural mentality of Gen-X and how it plays out in practise.
In his directorial debut, Stiller appears to go to great lengths to satirise MTV Programming (In Your Face TV!) as well as other culture points, slyly nodding at everything from the Big Gulp to The Gap. Thrown in the mix are also the spectres of AIDS, homosexuality and parental divorce (at an early age), not to mention there's a lot of on-screen smoking. On top of this, Reality Bites is infused with a satisfying cocktail of classic songs. It has everything from Peter Frampton to Alice Cooper to Crowded House to U2 to The Knack (My Sharona). Perhaps one can look upon this movie as horribly dated as everything is essentially eighties and nineties, but it can also be perceived as an authentic window into an era which is long behind us. Reality Bites is, however, much more than this. It's a genuinely enjoyable and engaging slice of cinematic entertainment. It provides a few great laughs (Lelaina goes out with a side-splitting bang from her job) as well as poignant, absorbing drama.
Before Winona Ryder hit the media on account of her kleptomania, she was a stunning actress. Reality Bites features one of the finest performances of her career. All those years ago she was beautiful and possessed fine acting skills. In this movie she's impeccable - cute, funny, exasperated and tortured in all the right ways. The standout of the cast, however, is Ethan Hawke as the overplayed Gen-X character that's smart yet down on the world and against conformity. Hawke inhabits his character with eye-opening realism, and is perfect for the role (some predicaments with the writing of his character notwithstanding). Director-star Ben Stiller has offered a few fascinating comments in relation to his onscreen antagonism with Hawke mirroring their offscreen relationship. Stiller delivers a heartfelt, sincere performance as Michael, sometimes raising questions as to whether this yuppie is a better choice for Lelaina. It's a shame, though, that Stiller's great comedic talents have gone to waste here.
In the supporting cast, Steve Zahn and Janeane Garofalo turn in terrific early performances. Also look out for Renée Zellweger in her feature film debut. Members of director Stiller's family also make appearances - his sister Amy voicing a psychic phone friend, and mother Anne playing the character who asks Winona's Lelaina to define "irony".
All things considered, Reality Bites is a movie not for all tastes. For me, Ben Stiller's feature film debut as a director can be labelled as perfectly acceptable entertainment. It's a fresh, unique comedy-drama (with an awesome soundtrack) and an incisive examination of Generation X that depicts these youths as intricate human beings. It may not be the definitive document of Gen-X, but Reality Bites is a touchstone for anyone fresh out of college and stuck with more ideals than job prospects. It's worth 95 minutes of your time.