Can we go back to 1994, please? I’m not suggesting there were no problems back then, but compared to 2020, the dramas that the youngsters portrayed in Ben Stiller’s comedy drama seem rather tame. They’re overloaded with pop culture, but since hardly anyone has a phone, their interaction is limited to watching MTV. There’s a general feeling of malaise captured here, but by today’s hard-scrabble standards, they’re living high on the hog.
Lelainia (Winona Ryder) is a graduate whose graduation speech ends with a shrug and the words ’I don’t know’. This blankness doesn’t set her up well for her first job, working as a on-set PA to John Mahoney’s self-absorbed tv host; it’s notable that she gripes about her job, but she’s a paid intern, if you can imagine such a thing. Her father won’t splash any cash on her development, aside for a petrol credit card that allows her to demonstrate her entrepreneurial nous by flogging gas at the local petrol station. Her choices revolve around her slacker room-mate Troy (Ethan Hawke) whose counter-cultural bravado hides his anxiety about his dad’s illness, and Michael (Stiller) a yuppie who admires her video-skills and aims to package her work as a documentary to MTV.
Stiller admirably casts himself as the weaker option, although Michael at least takes an interest in Lelainia’s work; Troy moons around and actively attempts to curtain her relationship with Michael without being willing to provide one herself; not since Pretty in Pink has a girl made such a wayward choice. Otherwise Kurt Wallinger contributes an interesting score, Janeane Garofalo, Steve Zahn, Evan Dando and Renee Zellweger and others pop up for of-their-time cameos, although it’s hard to explain Lelainia’s confidence that handing her footage to MTV will result in a satisfying artistic experience.
Reality Bites is a time-capsule, supposedly unveiling a truth about the shock of graduating into the workforce, but ending up incredibly specific to the early 1990’s scene. It’s a pleasant, easy-to-watch movie, but one which will speak most strongly to those nostalgic for a past that never really existed.