Welcome to the World of the Emotionally Mature

Reality Bites at 25

Reality Bites (1994) | art by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby

I: Janeane

The single greatest burn of my life was when a friend said “you seem like the kind of person who idolized Janeane Garofalo in high school.” The second-greatest burn of my life was when a romantic interest said, “Elisabeth traffics in awkwardness,” which, let’s face it, is a less-specific version of the first; an acknowledgement that I navigated the world with sarcasm and self-consciousness, and loud opinions if I was drinking.

Indeed, I was obsessed with Garofalo in my youth. I watched her first comedy half hour special on late night cable some time between 8th grade and freshman year, and while I can’t say I understood every joke at the time, I recognized a kindred spirit in her deadpan delivery and her take-downs of culture and, more frequently, herself: “I take a very ‘can you start my orange for me’ approach to life.” I started quoting her regularly and adopting her opinions as my own. I remember standing in the juniors section of a mall department store with my mother, probably crying, saying “I just want to dress like Janeane.” I don’t even know what that meant. Men’s button-up shirts over t-shirts and some kind of pant? (Janeane in Wet Hot American Summer: “So if one wanted to be hot and make a good impression, what would you wear? You put on a clean pair of pants?”). I wouldn’t have been able to explain it at the time, but what I wanted was to be an adult, and to project the air of not giving a fuck.

Reality Bites, released the year before her special, was Janeane’s first major film. She plays Vickie, best friend to Winona Ryder’s Lelaina, a proud non-monogamist and manager at the Gap who loves ‘70s sitcoms and never wants to settle down. She’s funny, opinionated, and has that retro style I spent my teenage years wishing I could pull off. For better or worse, Reality Bites typecast Garofalo as a certain type of Gen Xer, an image she’s since spent decades rejecting. She was almost a full decade older (and generation ahead) of her more famous co-stars, and her career trajectory had been entirely different than theirs. Ryder and Ethan Hawke were child actors, her friend Ben Stiller was a well-established television personality, and, while Garofalo had a successful comedy career, she wasn’t a movie star. Her iconic performance is perhaps the result of both her greenness and experience, giving Vickie a world-weary edge that can also read as cynical.

When I was 16, I played 30-year-old Janeane playing 22-year-old Vickie in a Drama II performance with my friend Michelle, the diner scene after Lelaina and her friend/love interest Troy (Hawke) have their big fight. From memory:

Vickie: I am so through with men. If one more guy walks out on me, I don’t even know what, I swear.

Lelaina: …Walk out on you? You walk out on them! I’ve seen you. You’re out the door before the condom comes off.

Vickie: Listen to me, I’m just beating them to the punch.

Lelaina:  OK.

Vickie: You don’t even know. I’m sitting here, maybe…probably dying of AIDS. And I am totally alone.

It’s heavy stuff on paper. In practice, it was two sheltered suburban high schoolers playing at young adulthood; I had yet to even kiss a person, let alone confront the possibility of an STI. But the scene remains one of my favorites, Garofalo delivering a seriocomic monologue about how she’s like a side character on Melrose Place, “the HIV-AIDS character,” and when she dies everyone will come to her funeral “wearing halter tops and chokers or some shit like that.” She gazes down convincingly into her mug. Winona smokes and leans forward, dwarfed by the green vinyl booth, and delivers a heartfelt admonishment: “You’re gonna have to deal with the results. Whatever they are, we’re gonna have to deal with them…just like we’ve dealt with everything else.” It’s a moment of straight talk and connection between friends.

And then, Lelaina finishes: “Melrose Place is a really good show,” and the camera pulls back as both women laugh out loud. The laughter sells the whole scene. Without it, they’re self-serious and vapid, minimizing the AIDS crisis in terms of nighttime soaps. With it, Vickie and Lelaina show a self-awareness that isn’t always evident in the film. They acknowledge that some element of their serious conversation is ridiculous, even performative, sitting in public at the diner they visit so often that Lelaina’s boyfriend calls there when he can’t reach her at home. They can laugh at themselves in the midst of their discomfort, existing in worry and companionship all at once.

II: Ben

Reality Bites is a young woman’s story. Helen Childress wrote the first draft when she was 20 years old, and it’s populated by people and experiences from her real life. But the film’s production was largely guided by men—producer Michael Shamberg, at the time nearly 50, and Ben Stiller, closer to Childress in age but already with an established acting career and an eponymous television series under his belt. In the commentary track recorded for the 10-year anniversary release, Childress mentions that the character of Sammy (Steve Zahn, in his first film role) was originally meant to be a woman, but “Michael thought there were too many female characters.” The character of Michael was similarly altered, originally written as a 30-something ad executive but changed to a 20-something television producer for an MTV-like cable channel when Stiller decided to give himself the role. Stiller’s own MTV show had recently ended its run.

In a 2014 interview, Hawke said, The movie always seemed to me to be at war with itself…it felt very confused about what its relationship was to the two male protagonists.” It’s an accurate criticism, and not just of the character relationships. Reality Bites is tonally inconsistent, jerking between Ben Stiller Show-esque sketch comedy—Lelaina interviewing for a job at Wienerschnitzel with a young manager played by David Spade doing peak David Spade—and angsty melodrama, including a fight between Leleina and Troy that includes the line, “the world doesn’t owe you any favors, and whether you know it or not, you’re on the inside track to Loserville, U.S.A.” The film’s best moments occupy a sweet spot between the two, as in the “My Sharona” scene, when Vickie implores a mini mart employee to turn up the song so she, Lelaina, and Sammy can dance. Troy smiles weakly at the cashier and the scene cuts to a wide exterior shot: the lit-up gas station, the convenience store, the friends dancing in miniature under a big Texas sky.

Stiller famously hired Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who would later go on to win Oscars for his work on Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant. Lubezki’s languid tracking shots and soft, natural lighting (dust sparkles in the beams of sunlight that cut through Vickie and Lelaina’s shabby apartment) heighten the romanticism of being young, poor-ish, and passionate. A montage of Lelaina’s couch-locked depression has a dreamlike haze, and the climactic romantic scene, when Troy shows up on Lelaina’s sidewalk as she’s leaving for the airport to find him, straight-up glows. The visual beauty elevates their plight; or—taken another way, heightens its absurdity. But what are one’s early 20s if not tonally inconsistent?

Reality Bites may evidence a first-time film director finding his legs, but it also previews Stiller’s future work with its blend of darkness and humor. In the same interview, Hawke said of Stiller: “People have this idea that comedians are, like, fun to hang out with. But his demand for excellence is high. And he’s extremely critical of himself. He was wound pretty tight as I recall. I don’t think he had a good time directing the movie.” Stiller is notoriously intense about his work, and that intensity was evident early on. The final credits of Reality Bites are interrupted by a brief sketch, a parody of both MTV’s “The Real World” and the film itself, in which Evan Dando plays Roy to Karen Duffy’s Elena. In a tilted angle shot, Roy says, “The band may be a small dream, but it’s the only one I’ve got. I’m Audi 5000.” Elena watches him go: “Please don’t let him get drunk and drive.” In the context of the story, this tacked-on sketch pokes fun at Stiller’s character Michael, a sell-out square who lost the girl and takes out his frustration through laughable TV. In the meta-context of Stiller’s burgeoning film career, it’s a director riffing on his own film, taking down the characters we just spent 100 minutes getting to know. Does Ben Stiller even believe in love?

III: Ethan

Boston, 2002. My friends and I take the T from our Back Bay dorms to Harvard Square, where my favorite band is playing a show at the House of Blues and Ethan Hawke is reading from his new novel at a nearby bookstore. The plan is to somehow meet Ethan before we go to the show. It isn’t hard: we round the corner of a side street and there he is. He’s probably going into the back entry of the store, but in my memory he’s leaning against the trunk of a car. Leather jacket, cigarette? My friend Deb, one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever known, is carrying a plastic carton of blueberries.

“Would you like a blueberry?” she asks

“I’d love a blueberry,” the movie star says.

Love him or hate him, Troy Dyer is compelling. Vickie says it best: “He’s weird. He’s strange. He’s sloppy. He’s a total nightmare for women. I can’t believe I haven’t slept with him yet.” When I saw Reality Bites for the first time, he was desirable in a way I was too young and inexperienced to articulate, this dour floppy-haired boy quoting Shakespeare. I have a foggy memory of riding in the back seat of someone’s parents’ car, driving down the main street of our small home town, on our way to or from having seen Reality Bites, and arguing about where Ethan ranked on the Bale Scale. Inspired by a childhood best friend’s obsession with young Christian Bale in the 1992 movie musical Newsies, the Bale Scale was the hotness meter against which all movie stars were measured. Christian, of course, was the only perfect 10. Keanu was just behind at 9.5. And in the car after school one day in the mid-1990s, it was decided: Ethan Hawke was a solid 9. Blue-eyed, soft-lipped, literary. In the parlance of today’s teens, Ethan Hawke fucked, though (as established) I was not thinking in those terms at the time.

Enough has been written elsewhere about what a shithead Troy Dyer is. In modern terms, he’s emotionally abusive, a gaslighter, constantly belittling Lelaina for her work, her emotions, her clothes. He’s cruel, childish, and seemingly unfamiliar with the concept of soap. He’s also grieving and confused, navigating his father’s terminal diagnosis and his own frustrated ambitions.

Watching interviews from the time of the film’s release, it’s difficult to separate Ethan Hawke from Troy Dyer. Here’s Troy, chain smoking and running a hand through his greasy hair. Here’s Ethan in the same sweat-stained t-shirt and scraggly goatee, shifting uncomfortably as an interviewer asks him about Generation X, saying, “people tend to call anybody under 30 without a job a deadbeat.”

In a 2018 interview with GQ, grown-up Hawke admits, “[Troy] was another aspect of me. Pretentious and self-serious and full of himself and wildly insecure.” The character was 22 years old, and while I hesitate to defend yet another problematic white guy, I have to concede that very few of the good men I know now were good men at age 22. Most have gone through a reckoning with their younger selves, recognizing in their 30s or 40s that they behaved badly in their youth, and understanding the social structures that let them get away with it. Hawke seems to have gone through something similar, able to poke fun at the pretentious young artist he once was while building on an impressive artistic career.

It’s nice to imagine Troy Dyer experiencing similar growth. He’s a smart guy, despite his many flaws; maybe the “planet of regret” he expresses at the end of the film expands into a galaxy of empathy and acting better. But probably not, right? Probably he fucks up and burns out, or maybe he fails up, into an MFA program and a couple of novels and an eventual professorship at a mid-tier school. A marriage, a divorce, a series of affairs with students who know better but still do it because let’s face it, aging Troy Dyer is still hot in a dirty stray dog sort of way. You want to take care of him even though he keeps knocking over the trash.

IV. Winona

The characters in Reality Bites traffic in pop culture and heavy irony—I’m bursting with fruit flavor, you look like a doily, I’m not gonna work at the Gap. But when they fight, and when they love, they are earnest and direct. None more so than Lelaina, the center around which the whole film turns. It’s an iconic Winona Ryder role for a reason; if Reality Bites suffers from an inconsistent identity, Ryder excels because of it, inhabiting the dual ambition and insecurity, self-seriousness and dismissive sarcasm of a woman caught between her ideals and lived adulthood. And, sure, caught between two lovers. But Lelaina is not some passive waif. She’s ardent and driven, she stands up for herself when she’s been hurt, and if, in a vulnerable time, she falls in love with her emotionally abusive best friend, she doesn’t stop being those other things.

For a film often derided as being about slackers, Ryder’s is a physical performance. When Leleina is excited, she seems to vibrate in her seat. When she’s angry, she moves in quick, hard gestures. And when she’s uncomfortable or hurt, she turns into herself, elbows pulled tight. After Michael puts her documentary in the hands of his cable channel, resulting in a chop job that bastardizes her work, Leleina is initially furious, shouting and flailing her arms. Later, at home with Troy, she’s quiet and hunched: “I really thought I would be somebody by the time I was 23,” she says, as if somehow this is all her own fault.

In her 1995 stand-up special, Janeane Garofalo receives a round of post-punchline applause and immediately crouches close the the ground. “If you’re going to applaud,” she tells the audience, “I don’t know what to do with you.” Like Leleina’s disappointment manifesting as self-doubt, Garofalo’s act reflects a familiar duality. These women know their own voice, and they believe in their work enough to put it on display, but in a world that doesn’t tend to respect young women’s stories, they’re conditioned to deflect. Sometimes it’s easier to accept accolades if you play them off as something you don’t deserve.

When I was a teenager I saw Reality Bites as a love story between Lelaina and Troy. The older I get, the more I see it as a young woman’s story manipulated by men into a marketable comedy that sacrifices voice for a love triangle and some easy jokes. The original script was purportedly more of an ensemble comedy, more about the friendships than romantic relationships. I’d love to see a version of the film that’s all about  Lelaina and Vickie, with a fleshed-out character arc for Zahn’s Sammy, and a Troy who’s more than a sad asshole. But I still deeply love the film as it is, imperfect though it may be. When I watch Reality Bites now, it’s like reminiscing with old friends, sharing an inside joke: hey, we were a bunch of young idiots, but we made it out okay. The parts that stick with me—the diner, the minimart, Lelaina and Vickie singing in the car, the group of friends smoking pot from a soda can pipe and quoting their favorite sitcoms—exist outside of the forced romantic plot, maintaining the authentic voice of a young writer reflecting her experience. And I have great affection for that voice, and for the characters it created (even Troy). I hope they made it out okay.

We know what happened to the actors, at least: Winona went through a career lull but reemerged as good as ever on Stranger Things. Ethan is racking up awards (and being notably snubbed) for compelling dramatic roles. Stiller is still alternating between film and sketch comedy. And Janeane is still unfiltered and self-aware, alternately speaking up for progressive causes and defending her sex-offender friend while acknowledging that the latter “doesn’t win me any friends.” I guess some of us never grow out of it. Now that I’m well past the age of wanting to be like my favorite celebrities, I have to reckon with who they actually are in real life. But that’s fine; Reality Bites is all about what happens when youthful idealism butts up against the real world.