Reality Bites, and So Does the Ending


Reality BitesReality Bites is the 1994 post-coming-of-age flick that marked Ben Stiller’s directorial debut. The movie follows a quartet of recent college graduates whose longterm friendship is heavily emphasized through the dialogue. The film has an obvious target demographic: educated twentysomethings who still can’t get their shit together and blame their societal surroundings for their lack of immediate success in lieu of blaming their obvious motivational deficiencies.


Much of the story is told through lead character Lelaina Pierce’s (Winona Ryder) voyeuristic documentary-in-progress. Trademark shaky camerawork and unconventional cinematic angles give these segments of the film that classic 90s grit. While these handheld camera moments are intended to portray intimacy between the characters, they actually evoke more of a sensation of exploitation as her friends express personal details for an audience that is as-of-yet unknown.

Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder) making her documentary   Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn), Lelaina (Winona Ryder), Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke) and Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo)

The headstrong and egocentric Lelaina is a very likable character on the surface, but as the plot unfolds and her personality flaws become more evident, it becomes more and more difficult to identify or sympathize with her. Despite this, she manages to develop not one, but two love interests in the duration of the film. The first is the veritable knight in shining armor Michael Grates (Ben Stiller), a man who offers her love, luxury, and career opportunities that she’s done little to deserve.

The biggest flaw with the plot of Reality Bites is that Lelaina eventually ends up lusting after her secondary love interest: the moody, lethargic, sarcastic Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke) — an unemployed, self-obsessed musician with a genius IQ. Troy’s character feels like he was written by a fourteen year old girl with a fantasy and a thesaurus, and thus few of his lines translate as genuine. Whether this is the fault of the actor or the screenplay is up for debate.

Michael Grates (Ben Stiller) and Lelaina (Winona Ryder)   Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke) and Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder)

As one can predict halfway through the movie, Lelaina’s character is destined to end up with her long-haired, definition-of-slacker best friend as opposed to the wealthy and sincere suitor who laid claim to her heart in the first few scenes. This virtually derails the movie as a "romantic comedy," as the viewer finds themselves rooting for the loser by the end of the film.

Despite the plot failings, the humor in Reality Bites is well-timed and certainly speaks to a generation of young adults struggling to find their lot in life. Much of this can be attributed to Lelaina’s lady sidekick Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo), an independent and snarky addition to the cast. Vickie’s character is a welcome breath of fresh air and personal responsibility in a movie that otherwise champions entitlement and self-imposed disenfranchisement at the same time.

Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn), Lelaina (Winona Ryder), Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo) and Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke)   Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke), Lelaina (Winona Ryder), Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo) and Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn)

Also in the lineup is confusingly underdeveloped character Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn). Sammy’s character barely gets a word in edgewise until a very brief couple of scenes that define him as a young gay man coming out to his very religious and unaccepting mother. What could have been a viable character was instead overlooked for the managerial career of Vickie at the Gap, the mediocre musicianship of Troy, and the indecisive and bratty personality of Lelaina.

While Reality Bites does serve its purpose as an entertaining little film, it grossly misses its own point. It’s difficult to sympathize with a main character whose introductory struggle is whether or not to accept a BMW as a graduation gift because of her "ideals." Why would anyone would think that a character like this is relatable? The answer is… I don’t know.

Watch the trailer for Reality Bites.

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