As far as movies about high school graduates facing the real world go, there are better entries than “Reality Bites” (1994). “Ghost World” (2001) particularly digs into the conflict between the responsibility of being an adult member of society and being true to yourself, and how irreconcilable that conflict can feel to a young person. Breezy by comparison, “Reality Bites” only touches on those issues, and it ultimately boils down to a love story between Winona Ryder’s Lelaina and Ethan Hawke’s Troy. But that’s not nothing.
Directed by Ben Stiller (who also acts) and written by Helen Childress (in her most notable credit), the film follows a trio of Houston high school graduates — and Troy, who didn’t bother to graduate — navigating life for the first time. A point of conflict is painted early on with this contrast: Lelaina talks about making $400 a week (as a TV production assistant) like she needs to do better, but roommate Vickie (Janeane Garofalo) later mentions $400 a week as a big deal when she is promoted to manager at The Gap. (Lelaina’s ambition suggests college would be her obvious next step, especially in 1994, but that never comes up, for some reason.)
Even further removed from Lelaina’s ambitions is Troy, a band leader. Stiller’s expensive-suit-wearing Michael – an alternate boyfriend option for Lelaina — is functionally the villain, but his criticisms of Troy are accurate. Troy looking down on people with lower IQs while having himself been fired from 12 jobs (and not having graduated from high school) is not particularly impressive. It’s possible it played as more impressive in 1994 than it does today.
“Reality Bites” loses something by not showing Troy playing music until the end of the film, and it’s also an odd choice considering how great the soundtrack is, including classics like Big Mountain’s (via Peter Frampton) “Baby, I Love Your Way,” epic ballads like U2’s “All I Want is You,” and the oh-so-’90s “Stay” by adorkable ingénue Lisa Loeb. Incongruously, a throwaway moment of the friends dancing to The Knack’s “My Sharona” in a convenience store is a highlight.
Watching the cute Ryder and the grungily good-looking Hawke interact with these songs behind them, it’s impossible to dislike “Reality Bites,” but it also feels like the movie is cheating. The actors sell the story of best friends who are hesitant to let their relationship evolve into love, but the more universal themes are left by the wayside.
1990s time-capsule elements come in the form of everyone smoking (an end tag saying they all died of lung cancer wouldn’t have been off point), the promiscuous Vickie worrying she has AIDS (she doesn’t) and Sammy (Steve Zahn) wondering if his mom will let him back in the house after he reveals he is gay (we don’t get the answer).
Also not answered is the question of what path – if there even is one — Lelaina should tread in order to have a successful career and also be with Troy. I suspect this conflict is “resolved” when we see the couple being happy together in the final scenes: She’ll do the best she can in her career (unfortunately, journalism, although that wasn’t as much of a negative then as now) and still be with Troy.
As far as “having it all” goes, this isn’t the tiniest needle that’s ever been thread in a movie. Basically, Lelaina decides to worry less. Another interpretation is she decides there is no conflict in the first place — that she doesn’t have to share a worldview with Troy in order to love him — but the film doesn’t explore this.
In the opening scene, Lelaina leads up to the kicker of her valedictorian speech, where she’ll explain how to make it in a tough job market. She says “I don’t know,” and that’s also “Reality Bites’ ” position. It’s not a profound answer, but it’s an honest one – and between the romantic leads and the music, the search for the answer sure is pretty.