Reality Bites kicks off with the queries most students have as they face the cliff-drop of graduation and real adulthood- “But the question remains” starts valedictorian Lelaina Pierce, played by 90s it-girl and Queen of Grunge, Winona Ryder, “what are we going to do now? How can we repair all the damage we inherited? Fellow graduates, the answer is simple. The answer is… the answer is… I don’t know”. A little earnest for my tastes but it does set the film up rather nicely as Lelaina and her pals clumsily figure out how indeed they plan to “repair all the damage [they’ve] inherited”. For the next hour and forty-five minutes, we follow the recently-graduated gang as they navigate through the very Gen X/90s issues that they face. Having divorced parents, awaiting the results of an HIV test, accidentally spending 400$ on 1-900 phone calls to a psychic and seemingly worst of all, the ever-present threat of being a “phoney” or “selling out”.
It goes without saying that the “damage” that Winona and her mates inherited back in 1994 is quite frankly cute in comparison to what their 2020 counterparts are facing as we put this godawful year to an end. As I watched this cult-classic (during lockdown, in my childhood bedroom, of course), I was forced to consider the similarities between Lelaina’s position and the one I will find myself in this time next year. Namely, being unemployed and trying to find work in media or, failing that, literally anywhere.
However, there were far greater differences than simply the variation in our respective BMIs and the prominence of mine and Lelaina’s cheekbones. In 1994 Bill Clinton was president, the US had just finished riding the wave of an economic boom and while their virus was in many ways a lot more terrifying than ours- it didn’t create a universal standstill like the one we’re slugging through now.
This is not to say I didn’t enjoy Reality Bites, it’s actually very good. But watching Lelaina throw away her paid internship in her dream industry or frankly even turn down a part-time job working at a GAP which her best friend manages (“I’m not gonna work at The Gap for chrissakes” she exasperatedly mutters, like the fool she is), is painful viewing.
This is especially the case as the film pins down the era so exactly that it’s easy to imagine a parallel version of your own life within the “slacker generation”. A more sardonic, greasier version of yourself with a Big Gulp (these are just huge slushies as far as I can tell) in one hand, a cigarette (these are non-electronic e-cigs made from paper and dried tobacco, as far as a can tell) in the other, who, no matter what benefit or opportunity presents itself, is witheringly dissatisfied and over-it.
It’s easy to be very jealous of this 1994 version of yourself represented by Lelaina and her friends. Running parallel to the main plot are clips of Lelaina’s DIY documentary which is, I quote, “about people who are trying to find their own identity without having any real role models or heroes or anything”. The clips are quaint but, frankly, in reality, would be seen by its contemporaries as narcissistic navel-gazing and the idea that a TV channel would take it on (even to mutilate is later) is hilarious. More hilarious still is Lelaina’s assertion that she “doesn’t want to commercialise it”. Can you imagine a penniless, unemployed twenty-three-year-old woman in 2020 rejecting a fair wage for her work simply on an ideological basis?
However, with the benefit of 30 years, these “bites” now give a heartfelt, genuine and very human touch to what can often seem like forgotten issues. Plus, there is some comfort in watching grainy footage of someone wearing clothes that went out of fashion about twenty years ago (and then came back into and then out of fashion again) voicing the same worries and concerns you have generations later. Let’s put it this way, I would not be hugely interested in watching the 2020 version of Lelaina’s DIY documentary (probably finding it whiney and depressing). But with a little distance, the clips are redeemed as almost historical artefacts from the not so distant past and now do live up to the idea of being little “bites” of 1994 “reality”. In fact, the same could be said of the film as a whole.
As Reality Bites veers away from Lelaina’s career to focus on a love triangle between herself, her Kurt Cobain-wannabe frenemy named Troy (Ethan Hawke) and a dorky but basically more than satisfactory “yuppie” called Michael, played by Ben Stiller who also directed the film. She goes for Troy, which is disappointing since Troy is every ‘beam me up soft boi” quote rolled into one. A perfect cocktail of pretentious and toxic.
Troy is a lay-about with an unidentified source of income (the man eats far too much takeaway pizza and buys far too much weed to not have access to mum and dad’s bank card- even if they are divorced), who proudly proclaims that he has been fired from every job he has ever had. Equally, he does really charming things such as leaving Lelaina alone with no explanation after spending the night in her bed and then, after confessing his love for her, fools her into admitting she reciprocates these feelings only to laugh in her face and mock her with biting and spiteful cruelty. Worst still, he is in a very average grunge band.
Meanwhile, Michael is deemed an embarrassing sell-out for working for… an independent TV network, sometimes wearing a suit and being a little inexact with his Shakespearean references. What a loser…NOT (as any 90s comedian would helpfully add here)! In reality, his comeback to Troy, “I think I know what she needs in a way you never will” is chilling, sexy and one of the coolest moments in the film. Troy, however, is invariably a smarmy git and would never be considered cool by a 2020 Lelaina who, I hope, would consider him a walking red flag and total bore to boot.
The scriptwriter, a 25-year-old Helen Childress, originally intended the film to be an ensemble piece, with Lelaina’s friends Sammy (a closeted himbo) and Vickie (aforementioned GAP manager and the most likeable and funny character in the film) enjoying more fleshed out versions of their storylines. The ‘bites’ of Sammy’s funny and endearing ‘rehearsal’ coming out to his parents and watching the coolest character in the film become overwhelmed with anxiety as she waits to hear the results of her HIV test are some of the most interesting parts of the piece. They wonderfully capture elements of the period which are not included in the cute/wavy/aesthetic-driven nostalgia we have for the 90s- it seems like it wasn’t all The Fresh Prince and tie-dye. These sub-plots are certainly more interesting than Lelaina’s ping-ponging between sell-out Michael and slacker Troy and all that they encapsulate.
Reality Bites comes to a climax when Lelaina sees her film project butchered up into a strange, soulless almost even… meme-ish version of itself by Michael’s MTV-like network. The ultra-earnest clips of her friends bearing their hearts and souls are now injected with photos of animals mating, shots of them eating pizza and, naturally, an abrasive laughter track. Admittedly, it is awful but is it necessarily the deal-breaker that she sees it as, both in terms of her relationship with Michael and even her relationship with the network? In this case, the integrity of her artistic vision trumps compromise and she runs into Troy’s unwashed arms fully embracing her unemployment. Perhaps, this is a little unfair (the edit really was a mess), but the pragmatism instilled in this generation of graduates by tougher times and a bleak future encourages little sympathy for the sell-out/stay true debate the characters struggle with.
Talking about money has morphed from being the ultimate indicator of bad taste to a necessity, as less and less of it trickles down to those just starting out. I shudder to think what Winona’s lot would make of the government’s notorious ‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber (she just doesn’t know it yet)’ posters. While there was certainly uproar even in 2020, deep-down we know that many of us, much like poor Fatima, will have to sell-out to pursue a less than ideal career in “cyber”- whatever that means. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s estimated that there’ll be 2.6 million people unemployed this time next year, with younger people being most impacted. So, even a job in “cyber” or part-time work at the GAP would be a godsend for many.
Reality Bites is far from a timeless depiction of the trials tribulations of one’s early twenties. With an air of general pessimism and despondency, it feels as though the film appropriated the hopelessness that is really the Zoomer/Millennial story. But there is some comfort in seeing some of the ever-present concerns played out in a world that feels like a notably better version of our own reality. The film also manages to show the most important element of people’s twenties, namely being broke but having fun anyway.
Along with the general envy I felt towards the characters, the iconic ‘My Sharona’ scene did make me feel some kind of hope. Thanks to ‘Our Corona’ (sorry), attending a gig, club or literally anything seems like a very distant memory. But, if this so-called Generation Covid can still turn an essential- items supermarket trip into a bit of a party, as the cast of Reality Bites do during their munchies-run to the gas station, then maybe it’s not all lost. At least most of us have stopped smoking.
Words by Eve Webster
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