Reality Bites (1994)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Back to the 90s. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
You’d be surprised what you see in a movie that you haven’t seen again in twenty years. Has it been that long? I recently sat down to watch Ben Stiller’s directorial debut Reality Bites. The plot revolves around recent college graduates and their search for a life outside of school.
Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder) was the valedictorian of her graduating class. She is now an aspiring filmmaker making her way through her job on a local television show, while making a documentary of her friends’ lives. Her friends are: Vicki (Garofalo) is an assistant manager at The Gap and Lelaina’s roommate; Sammy is their friend who is coming to terms with his sexuality; while Troy, is a philosophical musician, well-read, but crashing at Lelaina’s place until he finds a job.
Every actor in this film does a stellar job. Ryder’s sensitivities to the portrayal of her character and Hawke’s authentic cool are high points to this film.
Troy and Lelaina are best friends who are also constantly at each other’s throats, which obviously means that they’re in love. This is a typical trope from the eighties and nineties (think Moonlighting). When Lelaina falls for MTV-like exec Michael, the tension increases and little bits of the quartet’s world start unraveling.
Every actor in this film does a stellar job. Ryder’s sensitivities to the portrayal of her character and Hawke’s authentic cool are high points to this film. This is Ryder’s heyday as the It-girl of GenX film. She’s cute and has the acting chops to boot. Garofalo is fresh and always fun to watch. However the film suffers because their characters lack any depth or substance. While Lelaina is a “documentarian” she doesn’t show any knowledge of camera work. Her vision for her film is hinted at and when it’s filtered through MTV-like executives, they turn it into a typical reality show. Somehow this makes her incredibly upset and it’s hard to see why. From what we see of the unedited clips of her film, there is no artistic direction and method shown in any way. Sammy’s coming out and Vicki’s brush with AIDS are merely glossed over rendering the very relevant issues of that day meaningless. Reality Bites is a collection of snippets instead of having a full storyline. This is something I didn’t gather when I first watched it many years ago.
It’s almost ridiculous how every scene has a product placement or a pop culture reference as its foreground or its driving point …
The eccentricity of Garofalo and the MTV feel of the whole film is what sucked me in then. But upon the re-watching, the film gives way to clever schemas for today’s teen films. Every scene features the soundtrack prominently or someone listening to music in the background. It’s almost ridiculous how every scene has a product placement or a pop culture reference as its foreground or its driving point (ie, Dr. Zaius action figure in Michael’s office, Big Gulp’s during dates, Lelaina’s constant supply of Diet Coke). There’s an intentional theme here of modern day hipsterdom via yesteryear’s slackerdom without the social media influence. MTV isn’t now known for its videos, but for its meme-inspiring reality shows. The only difference between Lelaina’s film and today’s reality shows is that today, television viewers demand more of an overall picture of the characters. Well, at least, I hope they do.
Reality Bites only stands the test of time as nostalgia fodder, Stiller’s debut, and its spectacular soundtrack (Social Distortion, Dinosaur Jr., World Party). If you watch it now, you’ll feel compelled to wear baby doll flower dresses and pj pants as every day wear. Oh wait. Full circle: fashion brought that back again this year. Has it really been that long?
Reality Bites only stands the test of time as nostalgia fodder, Stiller’s debut, and its spectacular soundtrack.