“Reality Bites” is a movie that I found (and still find) to be very close to the real life experiences people who leave the safety of college face. If you are in your late 30s or early 40s and kinda settled in your ways and job, you probably won’t get this movie anymore. You are too grown up and the issues these mid-20 something kids are facing will seem trivial and nonsensical to you.
Heck, even the actors, in the movie’s “special features” section – especially Steve Zahn and Ethan Hawke, as well as Ben Stiller – don’t really get the characters they played 16 years ago anymore. They talk about how childish their struggles in retrospect seem to have been and how bratty and ungrateful they find their characters now that they themselves have reached their mid-late 30s, early 40s and apparently figured out what life is all about: “having a career or something…” I guess that’s where the true tragedy lies: no longer being able to identify with your idealistic, hopeful, driven young self of the past anymore.
This movie is about four friends who face life – Reality – right after college. Leleina’s (Winona Ryder) speech at the beginning of the movie about what her generation is going to do with the damage they have inherited and a poignant “I dont know” as a response sum it up pretty well.
She is the valedictorian of her college and an aspiring documentary film maker. She walks around with her camera filming her friends, asking them lots of personal and intimate questions about themselves and life in order to eventually create a documentary that will mean something. She wants to make a difference in the world and just like any hopeful college student, was imagining that she would “be somebody” after all the hard work she put in thus far. Little did she know that Reality just doesnt work that way. It’s hard to be a saint in a paradise that is crumbling and when paying your rent takes precedence over making a meaningful difference in someone’s, or even your own, life.
She shares an apartment with her nerdy-hip friend Vicki Miner (Janeane Garofalo) who is a cynical yet at the same time strangely idealistic girl working at The Gap as a manager. Even though she is hip and goofy she is also lonely and feels like she is pursuing hollow ambitions. She graduated college, but the only thing she really seems to have remembered is her social security number, which she can recite to Leleina even when she is drunk and stoned at the same time. If you’ve gone to college in the 90s, you’ll know that your social is just about the most important and over-used thing ever.
Their gay friend Sam, who seems very tight with Vicki, has even less of a clue about what he wants to do with his life now that he graduated. He is shy and has not come out to his mother yet about being gay. He thinks he needs to have a career of some sort, but just like his counterparts, is floating adrift in a sea of cluelessness about not only who he is but also what is expected out of him.
And then finally there is Troy Dyer, brilliantly acted by Ethan Hawke. Troy is a rebel, the freethinker, the “what’s-it-all-mean” kinda guy. He is a philosophy major who was only a few units away from his BFA – yet he does not seem very interested in ever going back to finish up. He is superbly smart and could probably land a good paying job faster than any of his friends if he actually put some ambition and effort into it, but he doesnt want to. He is an artist and his music and philosophy mean a lot to him and he seems to have little use or respect for the “establishment”. His music and his philosophy mean so much to him that he is not willing to just give it all up so he can get that “toehold in the burger industry”. In fact, he has a disdain for it and the fact that his everyone has sold out to it. His father is dying of cancer and he doesnt want to give up the one thing that means something to him and then end up like him, with tumors growing in his groin.
Troy is madly, insanely and secretly in love with Lelaina and because that is the only non-cynical emotion he has, he has a hard time telling her to her face how he feels about her or even fully commit. He dates a lot of faceless girls whose names he often doesnt remember and whose phone numbers he can memorex even less.
Troy is the most interesting and intriguing character in this movie as he just symbolizes the struggle his generation is facing so poignantly and realistically. The philosopher and artist inside him refuses to sell out for a steady paycheck and an equally meaningless and meager profession that will catapult his life into a boring, meaningless and existential rut. He takes pleasure in the details, like “quarter pounders with cheese, the sky about ten minutes before it starts to rain, the moment your laughter becomes a cackle…” and all he and Leleina apparently need are 5 bucks, a coffee and good conversation. He steals a Snickers from the gas station he works at, stating that the establishment “owed him Snickers” and gets fired.
When he moves in with Leilana and Vicky, Vicky says that it is only temporary until “he can afford his own place”. Lelaina responds that this was the American dream of the 90s and could take years. Indeed. Even in the 2010s, if you can afford your own place by the time you are 35, you are lucky. The Dream never seems to end for America.
The diametrical opposite to Troy is Michael Grates (Ben Stiller). He is a bit older, a few years out of college and pretty much grounded in reality. He takes an interest in Leleina after he runs into her car by accident and has her come to his office only to find out that she is broke and cannot afford a law suit. When he first comes over to the “maxi pad” (as Vicky calls their apartment), Troy mistakes him for a “collection agent”. Michael is precisely what Troy does not want to be: he wears a suit, he has a boring corporate job, a steady income; in short: a sellout. In a way he Michael “conformed” to the system and he has learned to walk the line of adulthood and idealism because he has realized that sometimes you gotta wrap the meatloaf in attractive wrapping (i.e. make concessions) to sell it. Troy thinks he’s the reason Cliff’s notes were invented. Tensions ensue as Leleina finds herself rejected from jobs she didn’t even want to have and as Troy’s feelings for her finally come to the surface, in turn creating tension between her and Michael.
This is a movie that captures the Zeitgeist of Generation X pretty accurately. I cannot describe the so many ways in which the struggles these college graduates go through truly resembles the reality for many people in their age and place. I’ve lived nearly every moment and spoken nearly every dialog said in this movie in my own life.
These kids are overeducated and underpaid and, literally, from one day to the other, have to come to terms with the fact that all the hard work they put into their education and idealism is not going to become a reality – at least not anytime soon and definitely not the way they imagined it would.
Troy resists this disillusionment as much as he can – which is what makes him so appealing as a character: he represents the “I won’t surrender” scream we all wished we had yelled out at some point in our lives to declare our independence but also the discontent with the status quo. But we all know that – as if trapped in quicksand – Troy will be sucked into accepting this biting Reality at some point in his life, like the rest of us, whether he likes it or not. Let’s just hope he does not end up like his father.