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October 26, 2011

On re-watching Reality Bites

I was a deeply impressionable 14 years old when I first saw Reality Bites, and it came to define “cool” for the remainder of my teenage years and beyond: smoking, vintage dresses, ’70s nostalgia, passionate friendship, complicated relationships, the attractiveness of moody boys, and an obsession with self-obsession (“I’m making a documentary about my friends”). It taught us all to define irony so we wouldn’t be caught on the spot, it was David Spade at his finest (“Have a ‘tude weiner dude, all right.”), and it made angst so attractive, so important, essential. It made me pretend to like “My Sharona” (“Turn it up. You won’t be sorry”), had Crowded House on the soundtrack, sold torturous angst straight-up with U2’s “All I Want is You”, and it brought “Stay, I Missed You” into the world, which was the song that was playing when I was asked to dance by the coolest boy at summer camp (and, sadly, this was to be the peak of my romantic life for years and years and years).

Because I couldn’t find Reality Bites at my local video store and the Toronto Public Library had not seen fit to update its VHS copy, it seemed like all my wishful thinking had conjured the Tenth Anniversary DVD I bought a few weeks ago at a yard sale for a dollar. I sat down to watch it last Friday night with an aim to craft a blog post about literary references in the film. Except that there weren’t any. Nobody reads in Reality Bites, not even Lelaina Pierce, college valedictorian, or Troy Dyer/Ethan Hawke, the greasy-haired philosophy drop-out. Who says things like, “I might do mean things, and I might hurt you. and I might run away without your permission… and you might hate me forever. And I know that that scares the shit out of you because I’m the only real thing that you have.” And what scares the shit out me is that fifteen years ago, I would have considered these lines incredibly romantic.

It’s true, all the movies I spent my teens and twenties thinking were romantic actually turned out to be fucked up stories about people who were emotionally crippled or mentally ill. Perhaps both forces were at work in Reality Bites (and really, we all know how things turned out for Winona). Reality Bites, the land where nobody reads, but people quote 1970s sitcom trivia at parties and Melrose Place is a cultural reference point. “Melrose Place is a really good show,” said Winona, and I’m not sure that I really agree, but I do think that Reality Bites is a really good movie. Still.

It’s an old, old story, contrary to what the newspapers would have you believe. It’s hard be out just of school, to be transitioning to adulthood, to be unemployed or underemployed, to not know where you want to go, and to have your actual options be even more limiting. To have goals but no idea how to make them realities. It’s hard to have ideals in the real world, to make things that matter, to settle down without settling, to decide who to fall in love, and when not to dress like a doily. It’s terrible to spend four years working towards adulthood, and then emerge into the world to find it utterly unwelcoming. To think that you’re not going to be able to have the kind of life your parents did, even if you’re not sure you want that life in the first place. To not get what you’ve been raised to think was your entitlement. To step out into the air and discover that you can’t fly.

We all know that each generation imagines that it discovered sex, but it’s true also that each imagines that disillusionment is something new. Reality Bites says otherwise: being 23 has always, always been terrible, but thankfully being 23 manages to not be the end of the world. It’s only the very beginning, and you learn.

12 thoughts on “On re-watching Reality Bites”

  1. Julie says:

    Oh, yes. RB is definitely a movie that changes as you age. Also, really interesting to think that Ben Stiller directed.

    On a semi-related note: In the realm of 90s angst films, I find people are either Singles people or Reality Bites people. I’m the former.

  2. m says:

    I think it’s brave of you to revisit Reality Bites. There are so many movies that I loved when I was a late teen/early twenties that I’m afraid just wouldn’t hold up. Reality Bites is one of them.

    I’m kind of surprised that there are no book references in RB. You’d think Hawke’s character would spew quotes from the Beats or Camus or someone like that.

    1. Kerry says:

      Well, perhaps he did but I just didn’t pick up on it, being lessed than well-versed in Camus…

  3. m says:

    I haven’t read any Camus, but in my experience, young angsty boys who have will do everything they can to let you know they have.

  4. patricia says:

    I’ve never watched all of Reality Bites, I but have viewed clips of it over the years, which was enough to know that I could never ever give up two hours of my life for this film. I guess I was too old for it when it came out. But then, I even found The Breakfast Club, which was closer to my generation, annoying. The one disillusioned generation film which I loved when it came out, and could still watch to this day is The Big Chill. Not sure what that means, other than I have a secret desire to have been a hippie.

    I had no clue Ben Stiller directed Reality Bites, which I think is kinda cool, though.

    Great post, Kerry.

  5. Alexis says:

    This was one of my favourite movies. I’m a bit older than you, so I was probably about 17 or 18 when it came out.

    Some of the things in it hold up quite well, and some of the lines do make sense.

    There are a few random lit references, “I know why the Caged Bird sings… because he was in a cage.” (Heh)

    “He’s the reason Cliff notes were invented.”

    Ethan Hawke’s character also reads Heidegger’s “Being and Time” when he is sitting in the coffee shop.

    There are some scenes that still resonate with me, like when Winona’s character says, “I really thought I was going to be someone by the age of 23” and Hawke’s character says, “The only person you have to be by the age of 23 is yourself.”

    (I am doing all of these quotes from memory. I could probably quote large sections of this movie)

    It does detail the angst and the joblessness etc.

    I last watched this movie in 2005, with my bf at the time, as he had never seen it. I was shocked to find out how shitty both men are to Winona’s character. They belittle her and her viewpoints and I found it really annoying. This was one thing that DID NOT stand up for me.

    My father watched this with me when I was in my early 20s and pointed out that my high school boyfriend bore a striking physical resemblance to Ethan Hawke in this film. (It was true, but the high school boyfriend’s hair was a lot less greasy)

    Also, Chuck Klosterman wrote an essay in “Sex, drugs and cocoa puffs” comparing Winona Ryder’s character in “Reality Bites” to Luke Skywalker. Pretty funny stuff.

    Oh, and to the poster above who said that some people are Singles people and some are Reality Bites people, I’m both. I love them both for different reasons.

    M- You should read “The Stranger”. It is worth reading and referred to frequently.

    1. Kerry says:

      Was not a Singles person– I was too uptight to be that cool. And I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks that this movie is holding up all right after nearly 20 years.

  6. Carrie says:

    Makes me want to see RB again. Also, The Breakfast Club. I can’t remember seeing Singles, so I guess I’m not a Singles person.

    I often find, when re-watching movies that I loved as a teen/early 20s, that the women are treated badly by the men, or the female characters behave in ways that are stereotypical or intrinsically weak or dull or stupid or nonsensical, and that it somehow bothered me less then, or I didn’t even notice. Old Woody Allen movies bother me a great deal, now.

    Last saw RB when I was 25. I can remember it clearly. I felt old watching it then, so maybe, um, maybe I shouldn’t revisit again.

    Oh, speaking of Ethan Hawke, any fans of Before Sunrise (and, more recently, Before Sunset) out there? That is a movie I’d like to see again.

    Great post, Kerry!

  7. deanna says:

    My adoration for Ethan Hawke aside, I probably watched this film 100 times during my 20s. I remember thinking that how I was just that angsty and mucked up when I sat in the theatre and watched it only I didn’t know at all what to do about it. I guess, in a way, that’s the point.

    But then we (RRHB & I) watched it again when the baby was small, really small, and it made me appreciate how feeling angsty is very different from actual depression and/or the inability to move forward in your life.

    That said, as Carrie mentions wanting to see them again, the two Before movies are far, far better films and actually stand the test of time… Well, the second one is one of the most romantic movies I’ve ever seen, IMHO. I’m not 100% sure that Reality Bites stands up in the same way as some of the other films that I watch over and over again from that time period — but I really like what you said, Kerry, about how hard it is to make the transition to true adulthood after university. It’s not a simple step, it’s a leap, and the landing isn’t necessarily easy.

  8. melanie says:

    I remember watching this movie a lot for a while but when I watched it recently with the Mister it wasn’t the same as when I was an angsty teenager. Still, I remember being that person at 23 who was thinking she should have it all figured out and didn’t. I also got a haircut just like Winona’s in this movie and then became really annoyed when people were constantly telling me how much I looked like Winona Ryder in Reality Bites even though it was my own damn fault.

    I have to say though – I’m definitely a Singles person. I guess I was a little more grunge back in the day.

  9. Antonia Tori says:

    I really enjoyed your story and like your style of writing. Reality Bites was on at my local movie theatre recently and i missed it but i never saw it on big screen before, however i was scared the magic might have faded…
    Keep up the good work!

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