Reality Bites

Arguably, every generation needs its own love stories, myths, and mores. For people of my generation, who came of age in the late l960s, the cinematic points of reference were The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, both released in l967. Then, as we were approaching our 30s, Larry Kasdan reminded us in his comedy-drama The Big Chill of our former idealism and the price we all pay for settling into a secure and a-political middle-class life.

Reality Bites, which marks Ben Stiller's directorial debut, is an irreverent comedy about life and love for the post-Baby Boom generation. In its ambience and ideology, it signals a new kind of picture, one appropriate for the age of AIDS and reflective of the Clinton administration, with its emphasis on conviction and commitment.

It's not a coincidence that Michael Shamberg, one of the producers of Reality Bites, was also involved in the production of The Big Chill, made in l983. In the same manner that The Big Chill dealt with disenchantment and disillusionment after the political decade of the l970s, Reality Bites is a sincere attempt to show the aftertaste of the greedy, hypocritical decade of the l980s.

The movie begins on graduation day, with a speech by valedictorian Lelaina Pierce, played with enormous charm by Winona Ryder. The message of Lelaina's address is that “the answer is….there's no answer.” Coming from a privileged background, Lelaina gets a used BMW from her father and a gasoline credit card for a full year. Lelaina is lucky to land a decent job, working as an assistant at a local TV station, but for her friends, there's not much to look forward to, except low-paying retail jobs.

Centering on four friends, who share the same household, Reality Bites is about facing the hard facts of life after college. The film shows that, ultimately, every individual needs to forge for himself his own fate–regardless of society's norms and family pressures. Sound familiar Of course, we have see many films dealing with the painful transition from adolescence to responsible adulthood.

Ultimately, the significance of Reality Bites may be more sociological than cinematic. Despite variable personalities, the four characters share many things in common. They are all products of dysfunctional or one-parent families. Their cultural universe is television–they have watched a lot of TV growing up. And they all want to achieve meaning in their lives, to do something that really matters.

At the same time, it's hard to accept the film's implicit assumption that growing up in the l990s is harder and tougher than it was in the past. In many ways, the dilemmas of these youngsters are universal: They have to figure out how they're going to support themselves and still be true to their inner selves and ideals. Facing the real world is a tough act of awakening.
In a characteristic way of Hollywood films now a days, Reality Bites begins well, setting interesting characters and situations, but as the story progresses, its dilemmas are reduced to a pretty familiar triangle. Lelaina has to choose between two men: Michael (Ben Stiller), a charming if materialistic video executive, and Troy (Ethan Hawke), the cooler, more intellectual youngster, who is part-time musician and full-time cynic.

Clearly, Lelaina and Troy are madly in love with each other, but neither wants to jeopardize their friendship by having sex; there's also the fear of emotional commitment and maturity. The other two characters also represent the complex issues of sexual politics in the l990s. Vicki (Janeane Garofalo) walks out on the men in her life, before they can walk out on her. And Sammy (Steve Zahn) thinks he has found the perfect solution to all romantic dilemmas–celibacy and sexual repression.

In its intense and sincere moments–and there are many of those even if overall the film is flawed–the central relationship in Reality Bites brings to mind that of James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebels Without A Cause. I don't know the precise age of writer Helen Childress and director Ben Stiller, but I would bet they are still in their 20s. Unlike many youth comedies that are written and sold to younger viewers by mostly middle-age Hollywood executives, Reality Bites is a story for and about the young generation from within its own ranks.