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Film Reality Bites turns 25: If not the voice of a generation, at least a voice of a generation

Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder in a scene from Reality Bites (1994).

Universal Pictures via Everett Collection / The Canadian Press

Lelaina Pierce makes terrible choices. She is impulsive, self-righteous, and reactionary. She is also complicated, flawed, brilliant and heartbreakingly naive. And thanks to Winona Ryder’s skill in embodying all of these traits while creating an unforgettable character, she is one of the greatest anti-heroes of the 1990s.

Which likely wasn’t what Ben Stiller had in mind while directing the 1994 story of four Gen Xers trying to navigate the complexities of one’s early 20s. Because at face value, the premise of Reality Bites, which came out 25 years ago this Feb. 18, is quite simple: Three college graduates (and Troy, played by Ethan Hawke) grapple with what they’re supposed to do and who they’re supposed to be once released from the safety net of postsecondary education. Vicky (Janeane Garofalo) is a manager at the Gap and is actively working through the motivations behind her relationships and sexual choices. Troy, reeling from his father’s terminal cancer diagnosis, floats between jobs while waxing poetic about “what really matters.” And Sammy (Steve Zahn – the most underrated of all 1990s icons) works up to coming out to his mother, who takes it terribly.

So of her friends, Lelaina is the one struggling the least. Her parents are divorced and fail to really understand her, but her father’s support still comes in the form of a used BMW and prepaid gas card. She meets a yuppie named Michael (Ben Stiller) whose reality is a far cry from her own, but he also genuinely seems to care about her. (Maybe even as much as Troy seems to.) And while she finds herself unemployed, it’s the result of her own pride and poor choices: she overhears her TV host boss’s plans to fire her, so she quits by sabotaging his on-camera interview with botched cue cards and is let go immediately. So yeah: her family isn’t great, her love life is messy, and she’s unemployed. But in the same way our most iconic anti-heroes (like Don Draper, Walter White, or most recently Nadia of Russian Doll) fall from grace via self-sabotage, Leliana’s implosions stem from that same tendency toward selfishness, self-destruction and an inability to do what’s right.

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Which is a constant theme throughout Lelaina’s trajectory. She quits recklessly instead of waiting to get formally let go, which would’ve afforded her a severance package or usable reference. Then, after a handful of bad job interviews, she still refuses to join Vicky in retail (or apologize for making it seem like she was too good for retail when Vicky offers her a job in the first place ). Instead, she spends days on the phone with 1-900 psychics, racks up a $400 phone bill, and pays it back by dipping her toe into credit card fraud. Plus, there’s Michael: she likes him (and likes him even more when he believes in and champions her) but she’s in love with her friend Troy. So when Michael uses Lelaina’s documentary footage to help create a Real World-type knock-off, she moves on to Troy, who, with his mottos and creeds and unearned arrogance, is an absolute nightmare.

And by the end of the movie, Lelaina seems to learn nothing. She doesn’t get a new job, she doesn’t seem to have plans for her documentary, she’s avoiding phone calls from her dad regarding the gas card, and she’s chosen to move in with Troy and his acoustic guitar. She is, as many of us who’ve survived our 20s know, setting herself up for another hard road. And it’s challenging to cheer for her found happiness because we know it hasn’t come from anything other than a buffet of bad choices that will undoubtedly present themselves again. You know: the way youth tends to reintroduce us to our worst selves.

And that’s what makes Reality Bites and its characters so unforgettable, even a quarter-century later. The revelations made in the film aren’t startling, and Lelaina is the stage-manager of her own misery. But such is the template of growing up, at least to an extent. Near the movie’s climax, Troy looks at Lelaina and reminds her, “Honey, at 23 the only thing you have to be is yourself.” And that’s exactly who we begin to cheer for: a confused, flailing, difficult young woman who ignores her own privilege and the opportunities it awards her and willingly walks into countless scenarios that assure nothing but pain. She hurts her friends. She hurts Michael. She hurts herself. And while we don’t get to see what the real relationship looks like between her and Troy, we can probably go ahead and assume that at some point based on their personalities and in conjunction with the realities of adulthood, they both got hurt again.

Yet, it’s 2019 and instead of condemning Reality Bites, we’ve come to see it not just as a time capsule of 1994, but a small sliver of what it means to be young. And in canonizing this reasonably-reviewed low-budget film about four recent graduates living far-from-extraordinary lives, film has given rise to characters like Lelaina Pierce. Who, despite making some of us (hello) absolutely bananas with her gleeful march into horrible choices, became a new type of anti-hero. With a haircut that to this day I wish I could pull off.

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