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Reality Bites (1994)

I was really going to be somebody by the time I was twenty-three. Houston, Texas. Four friends, recent college graduates, live together: coffee-house guitarist Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke) and budding filmmaker Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder) are attracted to each other, although they have not acted on their feelings except for a solitary brief and drunken encounter years ago. Troy is floundering, having lost several minimum-wage jobs – the last of which he loses for stealing a candy bar from his employer. Lelaina was valedictorian of her university and has aspirations to become a documentary maker, although initially has to settle for a position as production assistant to a rude and obnoxious TV host, Grant (John Mahoney) on a morning show. Lelaina meets Michael Grates (Ben Stiller) when throwing a lit cigarette into his snazzy convertible causes him to crash into her car. They soon begin to date. He works as an executive at In Your Face, a music video cable channel and after seeing the documentary about her life with her friends that she has been working on, wants to get it aired on his network. Lelaina’s roommate and best friend Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo) has one-night stands and several short-lived relationships with dozens of men; her promiscuity poses the risk of contracting HIV when a fling tests positive for the virus. Working in retail as a sales associate for The Gap, Vickie is later promoted to manager and seems happy with her new job. Her friend Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn) is gay but remains celibate not because of a fear of AIDS but because forming a relationship would force him to come out to his conservative parents. After an impulsive act of retribution, Lelaina loses her job, which causes some tension with her roommates. Eventually, Vickie’s HIV test comes back negative and Sammy comes out to his parents (and he even starts dating) and the two manage to resume their lives. Meanwhile, Lelaina’s relationship with Michael dissolves after he helps her sell the documentary to his network, only to let them edit it into a stylised montage that compromises her artistic vision … My goal is – I’d like a career or something. A talismanic Gen X film, this relaxed but realistic and episodic portrait of friendship written by Helen Childress tackles the tricky transition to adulthood, compromise, settling, relationships, ambition, fulfillment and jobs, and all in the looming shadow of AIDS in the early Nineties. He’ll turn the place into a den of slack. The central story is of course the love triangle and both Hawke are and Ryder are impressive and sympathetic – why wouldn’t we root for them? And they give performances which now seem like the cornerstones of their respective careers. Stiller, who also directs, is antic and admirable as the eminently mockable yuppie who is probably the most dislikeable if interesting character and who ultimately betrays Ryder’s earnest filmmaker. Did he dazzle you with his extensive knowledge of mineral water, or was it his in-depth analysis of, uh, uh, Marky Mark that finally reeled you in? There are zingers hurled back and forth especially by Hawke who is effectively undergoing an existential crisis writ large. I have to go to a jumper-folding seminar. Garofalo is fantastic as the laidback louche sleep around who gets her act together quickly and rationalises her future folding sweaters with equanimity. Selling out as a means to survive is the test for everyone here, life arrives with a sting in the tail for everyone. Perhaps what’s mystifying is how technically inept Leilana is as a potential filmmaker: at the time this was made it was the early days of MTV’s The Real World and this form of documentary would seem to be a perfect concept, recording the passage of time as young adults cope with the usual issues but specifically with the consciousness of the era. That came into being (following popular shows like Melrose Place – referenced here – and Beverly Hills 90210) and drew on all kinds of issues including sexuality and politics among a group of random young adults who are pushed into situations with scripted resolutions – a combination of exploitation with melodrama which proved a ratings hit. The characters here are somewhat stereotypical, even generic, deluded and self-centred graduates who need to be taught life lessons: throwing the central pair into a screwball-type romance scenario seems too pat. In this instance Lilaina choosing the Ralph Bellamy character would be the radical choice. But they are all inevitably confronted with their own shortcomings and the demands of adulthood when terrible curveballs are thrown their way. I can’t evolve right now. The music is by Karl Wallinger (of World Party) in a score soundtracked by emblematic contemporary music assembled by Karyn Rachtman with Lisa Loeb’s Stay (I Missed You) playing over the credits turned into a pop hit with a video directed by Hawke (not Ryder) which co-starred his cat. Produced by Danny De Vito and Michael Shamberg under their Jersey Films banner and the feature directing debut of star Ben Stiller. Childress could have done more with her characters and given them bigger, better scenes. She has a bit as a waitress. But we do like when Stiller’s real-life mother Anne Meara rejects Ryder for a position as a journalist when she can’t define irony. Then the perpetually unemployable rebel Hawke effortlessly gives an explanation. That must have been the inspiration for Alanis Morrissette (who, ironically, didn’t understand the term either). Look out for Renee Zellweger as Tami as well as David Pirner (Ryder’s then boyfriend, from the band Soul Asylum) and David Spade in a film whose cult status is long affirmed. She breaks my heart again and again but I love her


About elainelennon

An occasional movie-watching diary.

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