Reality Bites? More like Reality Rocks

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Almost 20 years later, Reality Bites remains one of my favorite films about figuring out how to navigate that tricky thing called adulthood.

REALITY BITES (1994)

Starring: Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, and Steve Zahn
Written by: Helen Childress
Distributed by: Universal Studios
Directed by: Ben Stiller
99 minutes

As I get older, certain films remain just as meaningful to me as when I first saw them. Others, well, not so much. I always find it fascinating to re-watch films I once thought were brilliant and compare it to my taste today. A couple of Saturdays ago, I watched three films from the nineties that were on 16 year old Steph’s most watched list; Stigmata, Empire Records and Ben Stiller’s directorial debut, Reality Bites.

And when it was all said and done, Stigmata and Empire Records definitely failed the test of time. (Any rock n roll girl in her mid to late twenties will probably gasp at that last comment, but seriously ladies go watch Empire Records again. It’s not as good as you remember.) Reality Bites meanwhile remained just as fun as ever. Since watching it in fact I’m seriously wondering why the hell it’s taken me this long to check it out again.

The film stars Winona Ryder (aka the Zooey Deschenel of her day) as Leilana Pierce, an ambitious Generation X-er with dreams of becoming a documentarian. To pay the bills Leilana spends her days working for a loathsome daytime talk show host, the amazing John Mahoney. Mahoney is deliciously slimy here, and you have to respect actors who can play lovable protagonists and evil antagonists with equal brilliance.

Leilana’s respite comes by spending her nights making tapes of her friends; shy bartender Sammy (Steve Zahn) brash, 70s loving Gap employee Vickie (Janeane Garofalo) and slacker intellectual Troy (Ethan Hawke, perfecting the role with a few exceptions that he continues to play to this day.)

Troy and Leilana would be perfect for each other if it weren’t for one small problem; Troy is a disaster. Sure he may emit grungy sexual confidence and always have a witty comeback, but he also refuses to commit to anything, be it a job or a relationship. Troy spends his days lounging on Leilana and Vickie’s couch and his nights playing rock at the local coffee bar and sleeping around with every girl in a cute baby doll dress.

But when Leilana starts dating Michael (Ben Stiller) a charming yuppie who has dreams of turning her tapes into the next Real World, Troy finally clues into the fact that he better step up pronto or he may just lose the love of his life.   With love triangles, endless pop culture references and dancing in supermarkets, there’s very little not to love about this film.

When you think Ben Stiller my mind immediately goes to his over the top movies roles, like Zoolander or Tropic Thunder. But over the past twenty years Stiller has also carved out an impressive career for himself behind the camera, directing both aforementioned films and this one as well. I think Reality Bites is a pretty impressive first feature and I’m not alone on this one; The Sundance Film Festival recently announced that this year they plan to have a Reality Bites retrospective.

With all the zany films he’s gone on to do I would love to see Stiller scale it back and deliver another laidback bittersweet romantic comedy like this one.  For now it looks like Stiller is continuing his trend of big budget zany comedies but a gal can hope right? For all those out there who haven’t watched Reality Bites in awhile or if you’re one of those Reality virgins, I urge you to check out this film now. You won’t be sorry.

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