Reality Bites Movie Review

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Back in 1994, Reality Bites was branded by everyone from marketers to critics as a movie that encapsulated a generation - more specifically, Generation X, who were around college graduation age (including myself). And seeing as Lelaina (Winona Ryder), the movie's heroine, kicks off this trendy flick with her valedictorian graduation speech, it's no wonder so many "slackers" (as we Gen X-ers were labeled, thanks to another "iconic" film released just a few years prior) felt so spoken to by its quippy dialogue and great characters, and why everyone else tended to label Reality Bites a film symbolic of its lost generation.

The reality of Reality Bites is that it's simply too lightweight a romantic comedy to succeed at being emblematic; and, as far as I can see, it never was really meant to carry such heft. This directorial debut of then-green Ben Stiller portrays twenty-somethings floundering in dead-end jobs, nursing big dreams, or simply trying to find themselves as they enter the real world. In the least, it's a slice of life; and at its best, it's an often funny and very endearing little movie.

The action revolves around Lelaina, who lives with best pal Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo), a Gap employee who knows how to fold "all those t-shirts," post-graduation in Houston. Lelaina works as the gofer for a bitchy local morning show host (John Mahoney), in hopes of having her video documentary work shown. She shares scary sexual tension with temporary roomie and uber-cynic Troy Deier (Ethan Hawke), a tortured convenience store-working philosophy grad who nurses his own dreams of fronting a rock band. On the periphery is goofy Sammy (Steve Zahn) who's desperately grappling with his gayness - pretty heavy stuff back in those pre-Will and Grace days.

Bouncing into the middle of all these angst-ridden souls is video company exec Michael Grates (Stiller), a blissfully-happy BMW-driving yuppie who woos Lelaina with his Planet of the Apes figurines, Big Gulps, and Peter Frampton tunes. Troy immediately becomes hostile as Michael cuts in on his comfortable tension, and he's ultimately forced to confront his love for Lelaina. Soon, Lelaina is at the peak of a love triangle, unsure whether to go with the stability and sweetness of the boring yuppie or the passion and volatility of the philosopher poet.

Screenwriter Helen Childress does her part, serving up equal parts cute, quotable lines and after-school-special-tinged story points. But this film's success is completely owed to its talented cast and director Stiller; in their hands, these caricature-ish characters come off as surprisingly complex and incredibly likable. The two big standouts here are Hawke, who portrays Troy's anguished young confusion perfectly, vacillating wildly between apathy, tenderness, and crazed aggression; and Garofalo, who is at times gut-bustingly hilarious and at others moving as a promiscuous woman dealing with the fear of an AIDS test.

As a member of Gen. X, I personally hope no one uses Reality Bites as the movie by which to remember my age-group peers. I know a few Troy Deier types who resent this movie's being regarded as such. But as smart-yet-fluffy comedies go, this one certainly has its charms, especially if you're not a jaded Gen-Xer.

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Reality Bites Rating

" Good "

Rating: PG-13, 1994


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