I first watched Reality Bites when it came out in 1994, the summer of my final year at university. I’d finished cramming for my exams and it was obvious I wasn’t going to be an astrophysicist, or any kind of physicist, and there was nothing else I wanted to do with my life. You would think I was the films prime audience, but I don’t remember thinking much about it, good or bad, beyond having a deep crush on Winona Ryder. Her character, Lelaina Pierce, was a film-maker, and creative, funny, principled, determined, vulnerable, and a fighter. She was everything I wanted in a woman. She was who I wanted to be, in retrospect, and like me, she wanted to do her thing, or do nothing.
In the sweet, terrible month of waiting for my degree results, wandering a familiar campus, hanging out in a house I shared with my closest friends, with no classes and no commitments, I sensed this was a time unlike any I would have again. It felt precious, and I wanted it to last forever. I wasn’t ready to get a job. I wasn’t thinking about the future. I had no plans.
We meet our film heroes immediately after graduation, on a woozily high rooftop, being filmed by Lelaina, who is making a documentary about her friends and their generation. They speak and joke about while her terrible camerawork judders and spins around them, often perilously close to the roof’s edge. It’s dizzying. They are about to jump into their working lives. Vicky (Janeane Garofalo) works at a Gap; Sammy (Steve Zahn) plays guitar in a band; Troy (Ethan Hawke) is a singer. They quickly end up sharing one apartment, but the story only really begins when Lelaina flicks a still-smouldering cigarette into the car of yuppie Michael (Ben Stiller). He crashes into her and they end up going on a date. Her ambition is fired up, but so is Troy’s jealousy.
It’s easy to forget just how big a star Winona Ryder was in 1994, and Ethan Hawke credits her with getting the film green lit. I also didn’t know this was Ben Stiller’s directorial debut. The script was written by Helen Childress, who was closely involved in the film’s shooting. It feels like a collaborative labour of love. Hawke gives an outstanding performance as the prickly, self-hating Troy. I know he ends up having ‘reasons’, but really, he’s such a manipulative dick. Michael, who is sweet in many ways, is also insensitive, and not in Lelaina’s league. She’d have been much better off with me. In South Wales. In my parents’ house.
Reality Bites is still surprisingly affecting. I had low expectations. I’m not sure why. There is something about your early twenties that is particularly painful and potent. You are working out who you are, and the world is only just beginning to press on you. Now, when I am forced by life once again to change course, as I guess a lot of us are coming out of lockdown, Reality Bites is a reminder of the possibilities when you step into the unknown. I want a new tribe around me. I feel a bit lost, vulnerable and unsure, but also hopeful and looking for reserves of courage. Unlike Roger Ebert, I love this film. Twenty-six years on, it really stands up.