It’s always sobering to think of a particular time and place, a frozen moment in time that seems so far away from your current situation. Ever since falling ass-backwards into eastern philosophy in my teenage years, I’ve come to fully accept the idea that “the greatest precept is continual awareness.” That’s why it’s so fun to think back to certain bygone years and imagine what it felt like to revisit your younger self, experiencing that snapshot of popular culture and collective perception once again. It really puts things into perspective.
Every picture is the past and every memory is no longer real, so it’s much like flipping through an old, dusty photo album when you think back about objects, songs, smells, or tastes that transport you instantly to latent thoughts you assumed had been completely forgotten.
The year was 1994. 8 years old and perpetually rocking out to the musical stylings of a still-breathing Kurt Cobain, I can remember vividly (maybe a little too vividly) how I viewed the world through my 3rd grade eyes. I dreamt of being a comic book artist, I spent my summers at the Jersey Shore, wasted hours on my bedroom floor staging massive action figure wars, and I absorbed popular culture like a sponge.
One of my earliest sources of cultural inspiration was my older sister, Rebecca. She was 4 years my senior and had her ear to the ground when it came to new trends. Much of my music and entertainment tastes came from stealing her CDs and VHS tapes.
My dad also had a neat setup on the downstairs TV that included two VCRs tethered together via a “descrambler” box, allowing us to pirate VHS tapes at will. We would frequent our locally-owned, shitty video store called “Video Way” and rent films to add our personal, copyright-infringing collection.
As children, my sister and I were allowed to rent 1 video game and 1 movie every Friday night. The video game was always an easy choice, as I rented Chrono Trigger enough times to buy it 457 times over. This time, however, my sister got the choice of movie.
Say what you will about gender neutrality, she ALWAYS picked the girliest movie on the shelf. Whether it was Anne of Green Gables or Pippi Longstocking or some other boring bullshit, she always made a choice that made me wretch. Of course, later in life, all this reluctant viewing of teenage drama series became a huge part of my own media tastes, but that’s a whole different story for another day. This time, she went with “Reality Bites.”
Upon looking at the cover, I was really disappointed. Besides my childhood crush on Winona Ryder (thank you, Beetlejuice, for my love of gloomy goth girls), there was little I could see that made me want to watch this angst-ridden, 20-something tirade about the pressures of being white and whiney in the big city. Little did I know at the time that this movie would come to mean so much more than its humble beginnings.
In Ben Stiller’s directorial debut, “Reality Bites” is told through the perspective of Lelaina (Ryder) and takes place just shortly after the college graduation of the main characters. Lelaina is a perfect student, an aspiring filmmaker, and works as a producer on a crappy TV show hosted by the dad from Frasier. While making a documentary about the lives, woes, and nuances of her closest friends, she vows not to fall into the trappings of commercialism and the MTV generation.
Along the way to self-discovery, Lelaina faces all kinds of trials and tribulations commonly covered in 90s drama films like AIDs fears, homophobic parents, getting fired from a spiritually unsatisfying job, and the identity crisis that seems to go hand-in-hand with post-college life.
Caught in a love triangle between the meandering musician Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke) and the button-down yuppie Michael Grates (Ben Stiller), Lelaina tries her damnedest to stay true to herself. Troy is mad that she’d even consider dating such a textbook example of a conformist while Lelaina is upset that Troy won’t come forward about his obvious feelings for her.
Lelaina’s relationship soon reaches a breaking point with Michael after she gives him a copy of her documentary to sell to his network, only to see it edited into an in-your-face montage that gives no respect to Lelaina’s artistic vision for the piece.
In typical rebound fashion, she ends up sleeping with Troy that night and they confess their love to one another. The next morning is an awkward scene and Troy decides to leave town on a whim, but he ends up returning shortly thereafter when his father dies and he reevaluates his life. Obviously, Lelaina and Troy are meant for each other and reunite in a gloriously cheesy embrace.
What most people don’t realize about a seemingly-simple movie like this is that it truly defined a generation of young people. With over two decades for this baby to sit and stew in the minds of viewers, it stands as a poignant and timeless study of life after higher education.
The film takes a wholeheartedly unpretentious look at the 20-something lifestyle and punctuates it with funny, serious, and heartfelt moments among a cast of characters who are not easily forgotten. The film relies very heavily on these characters and their motivations and less so on the setting itself or a bombastic plot. It’s refreshing to see realism in a film like this and I find most of its messages to be sincere and probable.
Let us not conclude without also mentioning its fantastic soundtrack. Everyone knows the fantastic Lisa Loeb track “Stay,” but it also sits confidently alongside such legends as Dinosaur Jr., The Knack, New Order, Social Distortion, U2, the Talking Heads, and Salt-N-Pepa. I had the audio cassette (wow, I’m dating myself) when I was a kid. It was worth every penny of several meticulously-saved allowances.
No matter where you are in life, there never seems to be a right direction to take. There are always going to be personal decisions you applaud yourself for later and ones that you regret, but my best advice is to face every challenge head-on. Remember who you are, where you are, what is most important to you and take a moment to accept and appreciate the reality you’re experiencing in the present.
I’m 29 and I still don’t know what the f**k I’m doing. You’ll do just fine.