Saturday 24 July 2021

Movie Review: Reality Bites (1994)

A life-after-college drama, Reality Bites grapples with friendship, romance and the travails of adulthood. The challenge of pursuing dreams gradually gives way to a bland romantic triangle.

In Houston, a group of college friends venture into the real world. Class valedictorian Lelaina (Winona Ryder) is an aspiring documentarian and is filming the lives of her friends Troy, Vickie and Sammy. Handsome musician Troy carries a too-cool attitude and a perpetual cigarette but is happy to generally do nothing. Vickie (Janeane Garofalo) is terrified of commitment, sleeping with a different stranger every night while working at The Gap. Sammy is gay but has not yet come out to his parents.

Navigating adulthood gets harder when Lelaina is fired from her job as an intern on a cheesy morning television show and Troy is fired from his twelfth menial job. Vickie is promoted to store manager, but has a health scare. Lelaina meets television producer Michael (Ben Stiller) and they start a relationship, but she always harboured a crush on Troy, and now finds herself torn between a stable boyfriend and a dreamy but shiftless hunk.

A companion piece to 1992's Singles, Reality Bites tracks members of Generation X as they step out of their cocoons. Written by Helen Childress and directed by Stiller, the stories of Lelaina, Troy, Vickie and to a lesser extent Sammy check off all the expected themes: student debt, the difficulty of landing a job with no experience, the monthly drama of paying rent, the dilemma between striving for a dream or settling for what's available, and the mortal fear of turning into their parents.

Of course every generation faces similar tests, but Childress and Stiller tease out some Gen X specifics, including the broken homes they all come from. Lelaina possesses the self confidence and fortitude to at least try and stick to her vision, in terms of both career and artistry. Troy's deeply ingrained idealism mixes with cynicism to translate into an overriding sense of ennui. Vickie embraces her McJob but fences with relationship insecurities and the lingering threat of the disease of the 1980s. Finally, and to the detriment of the character's prominence, Sammy's sexuality is a non-issue among his friends.

In the first two acts Childress maintains a fine balance between empathizing with her protagonists and rolling her eyes, despite Stiller the director leaning too heavily on montages and a choppy, overstuffed soundtrack. But the ideas run out in the final third, and Reality Bites devolves into traditional love triangle territory, Lelaina caught between the grounded Michael and floaty Troy. Here the narrative unravels, Troy never demonstrating even the promise of any future redeeming values as a worthy partner.

Winona Ryder brings her full sparkle to Lelaina even if at times she is too perky. Ethan Hawke is the other stand-out performer, convincingly creating in Troy a character who probably peaked in high school. Faced with a biting reality, some bite back while others just sulk and lick their wounds.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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