A quarter of a century later, Reality Bites offers a frustratingly incomplete portrait of the MTV generation.
A recent CBS News segment on the generation gap was illustrated with a chart defining various generations according to the years they were born. Generation X wasn’t listed. It wasn’t overshadowed, it was left out entirely, suggesting that there was zero population growth between 1965 and 1980. It was sadly appropriate, though – both the smallest generation, and the first generation to be less financially prosperous than our parents, we’ve quietly, meekly drifted to the background, after Baby Boomers refused to cede the floor, and Millennials steamrolled right over us. We have no real identity anymore, and we’re stuck between wearing faded Pixies t-shirts and posting memes about how life was better before children were legally required to wear seatbelts.
For one brief, shining moment, however (that moment being approximately 1990 to a few months into 1995), the world was ours, and despite our claimed indifference to brand names and labels, there were a whole lot of things made especially for us. There was OK Soda, with cans designed by Ghost World creator Daniel Clowes, and a 1-800 number where you could hear such painfully hip sayings as “What’s the point of OK? Well, what’s the point of anything?” Macy’s and Nordstrom sold $200 pre-weathered flannel shirts.
There were even a precious few movies made with strictly Gen X in mind—the first was Cameron Crowe’s Singles, released in 1992, followed in 1994 by Ben Stiller’s feature directorial debut, Reality Bites. One aged remarkably well, lovingly capturing a very specific moment in time and featuring likable, engaging characters. The other is, well, Reality Bites.
On its surface level, Reality Bites manages to depict post-college Gen X fairly accurately, and the glorious time when making $400 a week meant all your troubles with paying rent and bills were solved. The characters’ obsession with the music and pop culture of their childhoods, particularly when it’s used in lieu of having a personality, is also painfully, personally accurate. The deeper themes of choosing art and integrity over earning a living, on the other hand, felt phony and hollow then, and are nothing short of embarrassing to watch from a modern perspective now.
The movie makes a number of tactical errors from the beginning, the biggest of which is centering much of the plot around Troy (Ethan Hawke), a cynical artiste who reads Heidegger but can’t be bothered to wash his hair (because washing your hair is for normies, maaaaaaan). Embodying all the very worst qualities of the generation he’s supposed to represent, he’s insufferable, and the fact that anyone would want to spend time with him, let alone have romantic feelings for him, requires a considerable suspension of disbelief. Nevertheless, ambitious, idealistic college graduate Lelaina (Winona Ryder) not only tolerates his presence, she thinks he’s interesting enough to film as part of her ongoing, meandering “documentary,” along with friends Vicky (Janeane Garofalo) and Sammy (Steve Zahn).
Despite Troy repeatedly pissing and shitting on everything that’s important to Lelaina, it’s clear that they’re madly in love with each other, and everything that happens in the movie exists largely to get them to the point where they can admit it. As it turns out, Lelaina is pretty terrible herself, reacting to her father gifting her with a secondhand BMW with dismay, and rejecting the offer of a retail job because it’s not part of her “plan.” She’s not some common working stiff like her friends, she’s a filmmaker, and even though literally no one goes from zero to the Mayles Brothers without years of hard labor and understanding how show business works, nothing less than immediate work on a film or TV set is good enough for her.
Luckily, she meets Michael (Stiller), a sunglasses wearing schmuck on a car phone, but it turns out that he’s a super nice guy who’s immediately smitten with Lelaina, even when she accidentally throws a lit cigarette in his car and breaks his collectable Dr. Zaius figurine. Troy hates him on sight, not just because he doesn’t know enough trivia about Good Times, but because he’s made the unforgivable mistake of having a full-time, well-paying job, a decent wardrobe, and clean hair. He’s a Corporate Guy, and by Troy’s estimation he might as well be a child molester. This would be fine if Troy was supposed to be the villain here, but he’s not—it’s Michael who the audience is supposed to be against, the obstacle keeping the two true lovebirds apart.
Here’s where I stop for a moment and tell you that I was 21 when Reality Bites came out, and thus the exact target audience. Even at that age I couldn’t imagine being attracted to someone like Troy, so openly disdainful of things that meant something to me, even if those things seemed a little naïve and impractical. But the real sticking point was the idea that one had to choose between devoting oneself to their art, or working for a living, and that choosing the latter should be viewed as a personal failing. This was not my reality. I didn’t have a “choice.” My friends didn’t have a “choice.” That didn’t mean we lacked creative endeavors, only that we simply had no other option but to work, and try to find time to write, paint, or audition for acting jobs in our free time. There was no soul searching. There were no talks about what it meant to sacrifice integrity for money. We had bills to pay.
The characters in Reality Bites do have bills to pay, but in the end it’s more important to Troy and Lelaina that they get to do things their way, and everyone else less special than them can go scratch. Michael, who genuinely believes in Lelaina, submits her work to the MTV-like network he works for, and even though there’s no way in hell that any network would run raw, unedited video from a first-time, unknown filmmaker, Lelaina is appalled that her “documentary” has been polished and made more television friendly. The movie doesn’t treat that as naivete on her part – we’re supposed to agree with her anger over Michael compromising her artistic vision, even if it’s his job to know what would sell to a television audience, and Lelaina just graduated from college two months ago.
We would not get a movie that realistically depicts the balance between making art and making a living until more than twenty years later, with Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson. Reality Bites plays right into the biggest lie ever perpetrated on Generation X – that to work for a living meant sacrificing your character in exchange for chasing after the almighty dollar. There was supposedly a nobility in crashing on people’s couches, a dignity in self-inflicted
Bites occasionally feels like it might be a clever satire, particularly when it comes to Lelaina’s “documentary,” which seems to consist mostly of shaky, badly lit footage of attractive young white people goofing off and talking about themselves, but is spoken about by the characters as if it’s the next Grey Gardens in the making. Alas, it seems to be pretty serious in its message of staying true to yourself, even if your friends are stuck supporting your shiftless, lazy ass. Troy and Lelaina deserve each other, and Generation X deserved better.