Reality Bites: In Which The Girl Never Has To Play Dumb


It was remarked recently that you know when you’re a grown up when you no longer find Ethan Hawke’s scruffy, smart-ass character in Reality Bites charming, but see him as the dirty hipster he is. I don’t wanna grow up.

I want to stay in a moment when Ben Stiller was directing movies like this, and Winona Ryder hadn’t lost her hold on America. Janeane Garofalo was at the peak of her awesomeness. When we didn’t know Ethan Hawke could kind of be a dick.

A moment where you could make a raw yet sweet version of the romantic movie, one that’s actually about figuring out what you’re supposed to be doing when you’re an adult and what you’re willing to compromise. That’s utterly realistic and yet charming, and that actually passes the Bechdel test. Where the lead character, a girl, has aspirations and dreams, and also short hair, and says things like “I don’t have a lawyer. I don’t have a dentist. I make $400 a week.” And she’s great.

In her valedictory speech at UT, Lelaina poses the question, “How can we repair all the damage we inherited?” It’s the fundamental question of a movie that is already so rife with conflicted nostalgia — an early version of on our current nostalgic age, where everyone quotes television commercials and sitcoms to each other but feels crushingly disappointed already. Lelaina wonders why it can’t just all work out in the last half hour like in did on The Brady Bunch. Troy reminds her that Mr. Brady died of AIDS.

That’s Troy, played by Ethan Hawke, that is, a sort of grunge philosopher archetype that is both maddening and irresistible. He’s one of those guys that we all know that thinks taking the higher ground is not doing anything at all, which means he’s contemptuous of Lelaina actually trying to make something out of her ideals.

This is a romantic movie that’s about surviving when your fancy degree gets you a meaningless job, in a world of divorced parents, AIDS tests, being broke, sexual tension with your guy friend, and coming out to your conservative parents. It also involves wearing baggy vests and dancing in convenience stores to “My Sharona.” And loving Melrose Place.

And not having your parents understand what you want out of life. Hilariously.

The character of Michael, played by Stiller, is the ready contrast to Troy. He’s all about compromise, working for an MTV-like channel and trying desperately to package cool as a commodity. His channel hawks Donna Karan bandannas — blue for crips, red for bloods, and only $75. Remember how everyone talked in the 90s about selling out, which implied there was something pure to sell?

He’s also all about the emotional availability, and despite the fact that they meet when Lelaina callously tosses her cigarette in his direction and causes a car crash, he’s utterly charmed by her — and her ideals.

“Are you religious?” — is this the best awkward-but-sweet date recreation on screen? I think so.

Sleeping with Michael on the first date is, conveniently enough for Troy, a primal form of sellout. Troy calls Michael “the reason Cliff’s Notes were invented.” Remember when bottled water meant you were effete and wealthy instead of just wasteful?

It takes Lelaina losing her job, spectacularly, for Troy to warm to her. Maybe because he’s terrified by having to actually live up to his potential, or how real it could be.

Michael has no such qualms about Lelaina’s career potential. And yet when he loses her, it’s because he’s failed to protect what matters to her most in this movie: the integrity of her voice, the story she’s trying to tell, which he allows to be turned into early-mid-90s proto-reality schlock.

And that’s ultimately Troy’s selling point: authenticity.

The movie’s set in 1994. What sort of creature would Troy be now? I don’t want to know.

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