I recently rewatched Reality Bites for the first time in many years and WOW do I have very different feelings about it now. Since today is the 25th anniversary of its release, let’s feel old and take a walk down movie memory lane together.
The first time I saw Reality Bites was at my friend Sophie’s 15th or 16th birthday party (hi, Sophie!), which means I was roughly the same age. She was one of my cool friends whose parents let her watch R-rated movies before she was 18. My parents rarely did, so this was a Big Deal. Our friend group was already into the soundtrack, which was also a Big Deal in the mid-nineties (and single-handedly responsible for bringing “My Sharona” back into popularity).
I remember mostly being enraptured by the lives these people got to live as REAL ADULTS. It was the dream: living with your friends, working a day job to make money but doing whatever you wanted at night, smoking constantly (I swear there’s a cigarette in every scene), and—ohmygod—having sex. It was a glorious future that I couldn’t wait to be a part of.
But of course the movie is also built around some romantic tensions. Winona’s character Lelaina is torn between two men: Troy, her messy heartthrob roommate played by Ethan Hawke, and Michael, the driven businessman played by Ben Stiller (who, PS, also directed this movie, which I didn’t realize or appreciate until rewatching this). Troy is the classic Gen X heartthrob: he has messy hair, plays guitar in a band, can’t hold a job because of his “fuck the man” attitude, and is rude to his friends. But he also has hidden, somewhat-vague emotional issues that make his lack of empathy somehow excusable. Michael, on the other hand, is the classic Gen X buffoon: a clean-cut yuppie who works a corporate job, wants to be successful, and wears his heart on sleeve.
So of course at the end of the movie — 25-YEAR-OLD-SPOILER-ALERT — Lelaina picks Troy, because… he can quote philosophy, I guess? Or because of his rockstar hair? All the free cigarettes? Or maybe it was because of this beautiful mini-monologue:
“You can't navigate me. I may do mean things, and I may hurt you, and I may run away without your permission, and you may hate me forever, and I know that scares the living shit outta you 'cause you know I'm the only real thing you got.”
Of course me and the other teenagers at Sophie’s party swooned hard at this line, but on rewatching it now as a 35-year-old I yelled “Lelaina, nooooooo!” I had to pause the movie and rethink my whole teenage concept of romance.
Troy is a whiner who plays mind games. He’s passive-aggressive, he mooches off his friends, and can’t have a real conversation with anyone. I’m even going to be bold here and partially blame him for a generation of men who were taught to “neg” women as an acceptable form of flirting. Michael, on the other hand, is sweet, open about his feelings, and apologizes for his mistakes. Bonus: he believes in Lelaina and tells her so instead of cutting her down. Double bonus: he has a job! (Although I’ll cut Troy a little slack on that one because who actually gets a well-paying job right out of college?)
If I’m being realistic about this, both Troy AND Michael are probably bad choices for Lelaina in the long run. I’m sure if she chose Michael she’d eventually get bored with his lack of music knowledge or he’d get impatient with her lack of life skills. But I do still think he’s a better choice, even short-term! Lelaina and Troy certainly don’t cuddle and play music in their unfurnished living room for all eternity, like the end of the movie would have us believe. No, they are destined to have one of those fiery breakups that involves broken ceramics or a meltdown in a supermarket. Then they’d be on and off again until Lelaina gives into the lure of a hotshot television job in LA and/or Troy goes on tour with his band and never comes back. And becomes Jesse in Before Sunrise! (OK I actually haven’t seen that movie but it sounds like it could work.)
So have I become a soulless adult who is crushing the dreams of teenage me? Yes. But teenage me could have had a much better standard for heartthrobs. I wish I could go back and tell all the girls in Sophie’s living room that, no, you don’t need to put up with guys who say mean things and hurt you, and yes, there are many other “real things” out there.
I will say that despite this crucial plot point, other parts of the movie do hold up. Especially:
- Janeane Garofolo and her excellent wardrobe.
- Every Steve Zahn moment (although there should have been many more).
- The soundtrack, which beyond “My Sharona” also has the don’t-call-them-guilty pleasures “Tempted” and "All I Want Is You.”
You know what else holds up, surprisingly? That depiction of early-20s working life that I was so enamored with. I never lived with a bunch of my friends after college, but do I remember that feeling of joyful freedom, coming home after work and thinking “I can do whatever I want.” My job wasn’t a career and that didn’t matter. There was no pressure to figure things out yet. Also, my metabolism and my liver were still in excellent shape so I could drink multiple gin and tonics and eat nachos for dinner and still go to work the next day. So teenage me at least had the right expectations for that.
Do you agree that Michael comes off as a solid dude and Troy is annoying as all hell? Or are you still a Troy diehard and think Michael was a doofus? Also, should I get baby bangs again so I can channel mid-90s Janeane? Tell me all your thoughts.