I was a teenager when the movie released, and I remember looking to it as a handbook for what life would likely be like when I graduated from college. Love triangles! Creativity threatened by practicality! Sexily tousled greasy locks! If adulthood meant being like Winona Ryder's Lelaina, I was totally on board. So, I decided to see how the film held up, and take my sister along for the ride, for this month's Sibling Revivalry.
Here's what she had to say about the movie, 20 years after "Reality Bites" hit theaters.
Lelaina: the Proto-Hannah?
There were plenty of immediate comparisons to draw between Ryder's character and Lena Dunham's "Girls" protagonist. Namely: one of the film's first scenes, wherein Lelaina shares post-graduation dinner with her parents (almost identical to an opening scene of the HBO series' first season). Add to it the roommate and relationship drama, the ineffectual loan discussions with mom and dad, and the struggles with creativity and unemployment, and my sister agreed Dunham's show exhibits plenty of "Reality Bites" influences.
"But really, it's all the same," she conceded. "This is stuff that's happened to people consistently since then, it just gets extra-dramatized in film and television." This seemed to answer the question of whether or not "Reality Bites" stands the test of time, but I asked anyway. "Well, let's see," my sister pondered. "The Gap is still around. And so is AIDS. People are still struggling to find jobs post-graduation. And people still have a hard time coming out of the closet to their parents. And people still make really stupid relationship decisions. So yeah, I'd say the movie feels pretty current! I could see the 1-900 psychic sub-plot being something on 'Girls,' easily."
The Michael Hang-Up
My sister had some pretty perceptive mixed feelings at the moment of Michael's (played by Stiller) declaration of love to Lelaina via pay phone. While watching the scene, she said, "I feel like he's just using her to get new content for his network. That 'I love you' just flew out of his mouth accidentally, but in this way that it seemed like he was saying, 'I love you because you're helping me succeed.' If you truly love someone, it doesn't seem like it'd burst out in that sort of situation. That was, like, think about it: when someone helps you in your career and you're super happy about it, you say, 'Thank you! I love you!' Know what I mean? In this case, it's like the meaning got twisted because they were also seeing each other."
It's up for debate whether or not Michael's polished music television executive character (a stark contrast to Lelaina's other suitor, Hawke's slacker-philosopher Troy) was truly a good or bad guy, but her opinion certainly predicted some of the film's later plot points.
A Few Questions of Authenticity
For a non-smoker, my sister is surprisingly perceptive about spotting an authentic on-screen inhaler. Every time Ryder took a drag, she yelled, "Ugh, such a fake smoker!" I finally asked her to explain. "She just so clearly pretending to breathe it in, in these little puffs," my sister said. "There was no lung action, only mouth! Whereas Ethan Hawke as Troy was clearly a legit smoker -- he breathes it right on in there."
Speaking of Troy, my sister had a pretty visceral reaction (and suggested rewrite) to the scene where he abandons Lelaina after their big post-coital fight and then calls her from a hospital, only to hang up without speaking. "Okay, Lelaina: sitting by the phone never works. That scene is a total movie moment," she said. "You don't even get a mouth breather or a hang-up in real life. In real life they just don't call. There's nothing. Maybe you'll get a telemarketer, and you'll get all excited and then when you hang up you'll just start crying. Why don't they put that in a movie?"
And who wins the Michael versus Troy suitor smackdown, in my sister's opinion? "If I were Lelaina, I would get my sh*t together and try to meet different people. I didn't like either of those dudes -- they were on opposite ends of the bad boyfriend spectrum."
Guilty as Charged
The film's infamous gas card subplot hit pretty close to home for both of us -- we laughed, recalling similar stunts we pulled in college. "It's so easy to do at your bookstore in college," my sister said. "You just use the account your parents fill and all of a sudden your entire wardrobe consists of college logo items and you're all, 'It was a book for a class! Books are expensive!' But bookstores have, like, music and movies and electronics all this other stuff now -- the reason they do that is because they know students are pulling this stunt. The schools are on our side! I mean, that gas card was a great graduation gift, though -- let's be serious. And you really can't blame Lelaina for how she capitalized on it -- her dad basically told her to do it, in so many words!"