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20 Years Later, ‘Reality Bites’ Is Still a Perfect Portrait of Aimless Early Adulthood

If you think the current zeitgeist is oversaturated with millennials and listless, post-graduate 20-somethings of the Hannah Horvath ilk, just turn your nostalgia dial back two decades to February 1994, when Ben Stiller’s directorial debut, Reality Bites, premiered. Slackers and Generation X were a full-on obsession in the early ’90s, and no other movie of the decade depicts the culture so well — the characters’ meandering through professional and romantic disasters, their all-consuming nostalgia for the pop-cultural items of their childhoods, and, most importantly, the eclectic range of music they listened to, fueled by the cable music network boom (parodied in the film with In Your Face TV). It’s those elements that not only encapsulate the generation the characters represent, but make Reality Bites just as relevant 20 years later. 

To further the Girls comparison, Reality Bites was written by 24-year-old Helen Childress, who based her characters on the lives of her friends. At the center of the film, of course, is a love triangle. (A decade before the Mumblecore movement, a major studio-backed movie without conventional romantic comedy tropes wouldn’t have sold well.) Winona Ryder plays Lelaina Pierce, a documentary filmmaker who struggles with her professional ideals after losing her entry-level day job as an assistant on a cheesy morning news program. Her dating life is just as complicated; she’s torn between Michael Grates (played by Ben Stiller), the rather dim yuppie who runs In Your Face and wants to buy Lelaina’s Real World-esque documentary about her friends, and Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke), her grungy, out-of-work musician friend / roommate. (Neither of her options are really any good for her, which may be the film’s major flaw.)

While the plot is certainly a loose one, as in most movies about seeking creative fulfillment, the film’s success has more to do with the collection of scenes it plays out than the whole. There are moments that still feel remarkably honest and real without being too heightened and broadened to fit into a major studio comedy. The characters, for the most part, sit around and drink beer, smoke an endless pack of cigarettes, and talk — about their lives, frustrations, feelings, and, often, ’70s TV ranging from Schoolhouse Rock to Good Times. Lelaina goes on a series of terrible interviews, which culminate in her asking for a loan from her mother, who suggests she get a job at a fast-food restaurant after seeing a “retarded” boy working the register. (Lelaina’s deadpan response: “I’m not retarded, Mom. I was valedictorian of my university.”) It’s those moments of emotional distress that feel so real; in perspective, yes, these problems seem slight, but when they’re the only thing occupying your mind — and you feel like you’re roaming aimlessly through life — they can be so destructive.

Rounding out the circle of friends is Vickie Miner and Sammy Grates, played by Janeane Garofalo and Steve Zahn in two breakout roles. It’s through these two that the film is able to comment on the sexual lives of the generation, and all of the complications that seemingly endless opportunities can bring. Vickie struggles with the fear of AIDS (in, I’ll admit, a particularly heterosexual spin on the AIDS crisis that was prevalent in pop culture of the ’90s), showing that taking advantage of one’s sexuality also brings with it emotional consequences. Sammy, on the other hand, is a celibate gay man who comes out to his mother. Sammy is both a rare and a typical depiction of a gay man for the time. On the one hand, he doesn’t feel like a stereotype; on the other, he is literally sexless and, therefore, harmless. But he’s an interesting character nonetheless. The original concept for the film was to focus on the lives of everyone in the group equally, rather than on the love triangle; if it were filmed 20 years later, it may have happened that way.

Probably the most lasting impression Reality Bites left on pop culture was its soundtrack, which peaked at #13 on the Billboard 200 in 1994. It exemplifies the ’90s soundtrack aesthetic: a collection of underground, up-and-coming artists, with a few standards mixed in as well. The tracklist is incredibly weird when you look back at it: offerings from recognizable acts like U2, Juliana Hatfield Three, Crowded House, Lenny Kravitz, and Dinosaur Jr.; a few songs by lesser-known (read: forgotten) bands like The Posies, World Party, and Me Phi Me; and there’s even one original song by Ethan Hawke, which he sings in the film. But there are the two songs most identified with the film — The Knack’s “My Sharona,” which plays in perhaps the most famous scene of the movie, and Lisa Loeb and Nine Stories’ massive hit, “Stay (I Missed You),” which launched Loeb’s career and solidified the song as a go-to karaoke track for decades to come. (Loeb was introduced to Stiller by Hawke, who was her neighbor and would later direct the music video; she can boast the rare achievement of having earned a number-one song before landing a record deal.)

It may seem terribly dated in hindsight, with its visual gags about House of Style and the Psychic Friends Network, but of the slew of cinematic attempts at nailing ’90s slacker ephemera, Reality Bites is in a league of its own. (The only film that comes close is Singles, Cameron Crowe’s comedy about love-lorn Seattleites, but it was a commercial flop.) For those whose memory of the film is fuzzy, or who were born after Reality Bites made a minor blip in the cultural consciousness, it’s worth revisiting to see how much of a debt modern pop culture owes to the film for nailing the experience of young adulthood in all its messy glory.