Never has there been a movie that captures the post-college experience quite as perfectly as Reality Bites. This 1994 cult classic film has often been referred to as one of the films that captured the zeitgeist of the experience of young adults in their 20s in the early 1990s. However, upon re-watching this movie, I find it to be incredibly relevant and accurate for today’s 20 somethings, especially the ones who are out of college and have no idea what the fuck they’re doing.
The movie follows a group of malcontents after their graduation from college: Lelaina (Winona Ryder), Vicki (Janeane Garofalo), Troy (Ethan Hawke), and Sammy (Steve Zahn). Lelaina wants to be a documentarian but despite being the valedictorian of her college class (which means jack shit in the real world), she works as a production assistant on a morning talk show for Martin Crane.
During one of many public sing-a-longs with the radio, Lelaina and Vicki are driving around when Lelaina accidentally throws a cigarette into the convertible of Michael Grates (Ben Stiller, who also directed this movie), causing him to crash into her car. Lelaina giggles her way through the crash and rather than blaming Lelaina for the accident, Michael asks her out because the first thing on my mind after extensive auto damage is whether or not someone is free for dinner.
Michael is an executive at a cable network called In Your Face, which is basically MTV without having to pay MTV for the use of their name. He is frequently derided by Troy as a yuppie, but that’s only because Troy is secretly in love with Lelaina but won’t admit it because he has the intimacy issues that come from being a musician.
While Lelaina navigates the tricky world of dating a nice guy while being in love with someone else who is kind of an asshole, she works on her documentary and films her friends. Vicki, an employee at The Gap, has resolved to avoid commitment and relationships which leads her to have a series of one night flings. However, these choices are interrupted when a past fling tells her that he tested positive for HIV and now she has to go get tested too. Vicki is, of course, terrified.
Sammy is gay but despite his earlier claims that he’s celibate and doesn’t date due to fear of AIDS, it’s really because he’s afraid to come out to his conservative parents. I feel like this should’ve been a bigger storyline but it kind of reads as background noise to Lelaina’s angsty white girl problems.
Troy, of course, is just a grump for the sake of being a grump. He gets fired from every job he has for one reason or another, the latest being when he stole a Snickers bar from the gas station he worked at. He’s a musician, but he’s the kind that doesn’t really like to practice all that much. He’s more like the guitar guy at a party, the one who sits in the corner playing music and acting all moody while every girl at the party throws their panties at him.
Lelaina gets mad at her cantankerous boss and decides to do the mature thing and swap out his cue cards with ones that say awful things like “I like young boys.” Funny, but still awful. Lelaina is, of course, fired. She then embarks on a series of interviews with Anne Meara, Andy Dick, and a pre-pubescent David Spade in which she’s told she either doesn’t have enough experience or she’s overqualified which is the story of my fucking life.
Also, Vicki’s HIV test comes back negative and Sammy comes out to his parents and starts openly dating which seem like large plot points to me but are clearly irrelevant in the face of Lelaina’s love life. Lelaina is still dating Michael but Troy decides to make his move. In a somewhat heavy handed juxtaposition of corporate materialism and minimalistic bliss, Troy tells Lelaina this:
Lelaina shoots him down because she already has a boyfriend so Troy throws a moody musician fit. Lelaina continues her job search but finds nothing so instead of looking for gainful employment, she resorts to calling a 1-900 psychic hotline and racks up a $400 phone bill. Although she has no job, she has a gas card that her father has agreed to pay for so she heads to the gas station and gets strangers to give her their cash and she puts their gas on her gas card.
Shortly after this, Michael calls Lelaina with huge news–he showed her documentary to In Your Face and they loved it and want to buy it. In the midst of their excited phone call, Michael blurts out that he loves Lelaina. She’s a little too distracted by the sale of her documentary to really acknowledge this because Winona Ryder can’t be in a movie unless her character is completely narcissistic and self-absorbed. Michael later picks up Lelaina to attend the premiere screening of her documentary at In Your Face. She is horrified to discover her documentary has been hacked up into what looks like a shitty promo for The Real World and she blames Michael for destroying her artistic vision. Lelaina breaks up with Michael and runs home to vent to Troy about what a failure she is.
Lelaina and Troy fiiiiiiinally sleep together but in the morning, he runs out which, of course, makes Lelaina feel just wonderful. She calls him on it later and he tells her that he’s never slept with someone he loves before and Lelaina yells at him for being immature.
Troy then disappears and Lelaina worries about him before finding out that he left suddenly to attend his father’s funeral in Chicago. When he returns, he has reevaluated his life and realizes that he really wants to make a relationship with Lelaina work. They get together and everybody is still broke and has no idea what the fuck they’re doing, but they’re happy which I guess is the whole point: shit happens but as long as you have people you love, it can’t be that bad.
Happy Throwback Thursday!