I'm almost 28 years old, which doesn't make me a member of Generation X, but I loved the movies of that time just the same. When Reality Bites came out, I was only nine years old (nine!), so I didn't "discover" it until I was about 14 or 15. It instantly became one of my favorite movies, and remains so to this day -- and not in the way that I think back lovingly on Empire Records or The Craft (which are actually not very good movies, but nostalgia makes us like crazy things). Reality Bites is a legitimately good movie. Written by Helen Childress (who spent three years writing over 70 drafts of the story, based on the lives of her and her friends) and directed by Ben Stiller, the film follows Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder, aka WINONA FOREVER), a woman in her early 20s who, despite being valedictorian of her graduating college class, is still floundering in the professional world. She wants to be a filmmaker, but she's stuck as a production assistant for a horrible daytime TV show host.
Surrounding Lelaina are her friends: the responsible Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), who has accepted her station in life as an employee at the Gap, and is working her way up the management ladder; the closeted gay friend Sammy (Steve Zahn), who struggles with whether or not to come out to his parents; and Troy (Ethan Hawke, the perfect movie'd up version of '90s grunge because he has a goatee, does not wash his hair, and wears grandpa sweaters and flannel), an aspiring musician who is pessimistic and stubborn about having a "real job."
Lelaina and Troy have all this sexual tension, but Lelaina knows he's bad news because she watches him bed and ditch women with the sort of casual regularity one might assign to changing their underwear or putting on deodorant in the morning. Actually, Troy probably pays more attention to women than to his underwear and hygiene. And yet, Lelaina just can't help but be attracted to him -- he'd be so damn perfect if he could just apply some of the same passion he has for music to securing gainful employment, and maybe he's only a cocky womanizer because he hasn't met the right woman yet, or in this case, he hasn't realized he's met the right woman already.
But then Lelaina meets Michael Grates, a producer for the TV network In Your Face (a satirical spin on MTV), and he likes Lelaina right away -- even though she caused him to get into a car accident and she smashed his Dr. Zaius figurine. He's all white collar and yuppie-light with his sensible adult job (with edgy qualities!), and he's probably the kind of guy who has a Roth IRA and can explain what that means. But he's also sort of dorky and tuned into pop culture, and he thinks Lelaina and her aspirations are wonderful. Bonus points: he hates Troy's whole slacker facade and sees right through it.
Michael is responsible, successful, supportive, cute, charming and (mostly) earnest. Troy is lazy, pessimistic, opportunistic, "rational" (read: quick to tell you why you'll fail at anything), unkempt and kind of an egotistical tool. Michael is confident; Troy is cocky. Together, they represent the two paths laid out in front of Lelaina: go the artistic route and follow your dreams, to hell with responsibility, and just let life roll right off your back (and hey, accrue mountains of debt and maybe a few STDs along the way, no big deal -- that's just L-I-V-I-N'), or be responsible, make compromises that will help you get where you need and want to go in life, and find financial security while also pursuing your dreams (and you might end up with a retirement fund, who knows).
Here's the thing: Michael doesn't do anything wrong in this movie. Yeah, he takes Lelaina's documentary footage of her and her friends and gives it to his network, and they edit it into this obnoxious promo reel for a reality show, complete with snappy sound bites and horrendously tone-deaf sound effects. But that's not Michael's fault! He had no idea! Michael genuinely thought his network would be the right place for Lelaina's documentary, and he could make it into a worthwhile, poignant series that would rejuvenate the network and cut through all the garish noise. But Lelaina doesn't want to hear it, so she stomps home and has pouty sex with Troy, who, like, you know, "gets" her.
But Troy treats Lelaina like any other hook-up (quelle surprise), and without a job or a boyfriend -- and with Troy being the dick she should have known he'd be (but hey, we all make mistakes) -- Lelaina goes down the shame spiral. And then my favorite scene happens.
Lelaina chain-smokes and lives in the living room, racking up insane phone bills by calling the Psychic Friends Network. Vickie comes in and lays it out for her:
"What are you doing? You lay on that couch all day. Those pajamas are like your uniform. You run up a four-hundred dollar phone bill. You watch TV. You chain-smoke. You don't go outside. You don't do anything. Man, you are in the Bell Jar."
Who hasn't done this, sans maybe the four-hundred dollar phone bill?! It's heartbreak and defeat and insecurity and just giving up -- it's depression, and Troy was her breaking point. Lelaina, in this moment, is the depressed person's spirit animal. We only wish we looked as cool and effortlessly sexy as an unwashed, hopeless Winona Ryder. And man, Lelaina really is an earlier prototype of Hannah Horvath from Girls.
In the end, Troy has some kind of miraculous, life-changing moment of clarity when his father (whom he despises and resents) dies, so he comes back to Lelaina, tail between his legs, and she just welcomes him back, no questions asked. Poof! As if someone dying magically makes him a better person and forces him to confront the error of his ways. Look, I'm not saying he's not remorseful or that it's impossible for him to change, but he was horrible to Lelaina, and I highly doubt that just because his dad died, he's going to rush out and get a grown-up job.
One of the central themes in Reality Bites is, of course, irony, and as my friend and colleague Todd Gilchrist pointed out to me on Twitter, it's fittingly ironic that Lelaina, who doesn't even know what irony means when asked in a job interview, chooses Troy instead of Michael -- of course she wouldn't choose the right guy. She's young. She has to make everything more difficult for herself. And double that sentiment because she's artistically-inclined, and us creative types just love our suffering. Thematically, and coming from the perspective of someone who was fairly recently in her early 20s, I totally understand why Lelaina chooses Troy. Hell, if I were still 24, I'd choose Troy.
But she chose wrong! Even when I was a teenager, and even when I was in my early 20s and would have chosen my own version of Troy in real life, I could still see that Lelaina made the wrong decision. Troy spouts off all his nihilistic philosophy and his slacker bon mots with that cocky hipster attitude, and references Cool Hand Luke and has a band with a stupid name, and he's into retro sitcoms and smoking pot -- and that's all fun or whatever, when you're ignoring the health risks of eating Cheetos and still letting your parents pay for your cell phone bill, but he's not the guy you settle down with; he's the guy you settle for. Michael is the kind of guy who makes you want to be a better person, who motivates you and inspires you to achieve goals and eat more fruits and vegetables. He knows how to be goofy and have fun, but he also knows about the important things in life, and he's the guy who won't binge-drink and hate-fuck you with his eyes from a stage while singing a half-cocked cover of the Violent Femmes' "Add It Up" at you.
Being angry at Lelaina is important, though, because it's recognizing that same part inside yourself that would choose someone like Troy, even though you know better. And we can romanticize it and say Lelaina was following her heart and her creative impulses, and embracing the idea of opening herself up to the unknown and letting things go, and maybe that's what she needs to do on her particular journey to learn even more valuable life lessons. So maybe she chose the wrong guy at the right time in her life, and maybe Michael would have been the right guy at the wrong time for her. Even though she makes the wrong choice and I disagree with her (heartily!), it's also kind of why I love Lelaina. She's a big ol' mess, and we all have messy times filled with messy decisions in our lives. But that doesn't change the fact that Troy is a fucking dick.
Remember in The Three Amigos, when Steve Martin gives the speech about how we all have an El Guapo in our lives? We all have a Troy Dyer in our lives, but that also means -- ugh, hopefully -- that we all have a Michael Grates in our lives. Here's hoping we make the right choice at the right time.