It’s been twenty-five years since Lelaina Pierce and her fellow friends ingeniously used her father’s gas card just to make ends meet as they struggled through the crisis of life after college in Reality Bites. Last Saturday, members of the cast and crew reunited at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City for a special 25th anniversary screening of the film that ended with a surprise performance of “Stay” by Lisa Loeb, and a Q&A featuring many fond memories from the making of the film during what Winona Ryder refers to as the “very specific time period” of 1994. “It’s emotional for me to be here,” says director, Ben Stiller, about his feature debut. “To [experience] the movie with an audience, to hear your reactions. To feel it together and to still be here twenty-five years later. I’m very grateful for that.”
Everyone from Stiller to screenwriter Helen Childress to co-star, Ethan Hawke (donning a t-shirt repping character Troy Dyer’s band, Hey That’s My Bike) credits Ryder for making the movie happen. “Winona brought us all together,” says Hawke, gushing over the actress for using her reputation at that time to champion the voice of a female writer. “Being a woman back then, it’s no secret, was a slight handicap,” says Childress, who wrote the script at the impressive age of twenty-three. “Winona was so empowered, and she empowered another woman, [which] means a lot to me.” Humbled by all the overwhelming praise, Ryder insists, “I feel like the lucky one. I feel like it couldn’t have been made without every ingredient up here.”
The opportunity to watch the film in this setting was an absolute joy. Sitting among a crowd who remembers the era being portrayed in the film and actually gets all the pop culture references and jokes that are, admittedly, a product of their time made for such a memorable theater experience. My favorite moment of the screening was the resounding applause that erupted when Stiller’s Michael Grates finally gets his chance to one-up Hawke’s cynical and jealous, Troy Dyer, as he delivers the epic line, “I think I know what she needs in a way that you never will.” Addressing the love triangle, Ryder claims people still approach her very upset about the choice she makes in the end. But Hawke adds, “One of the things that I love about the writing is that both the men are incredibly flawed…but we’re trying to learn.” Which, I think, is a statement that extends to every character in the film, given that they’re all trying to figure out how to make it in the world, one day at a time.
There’s an authenticity coursing through Reality Bites that obviously connected with people in the early nineties but also continues to resonate after twenty-five years. Looking back, producer Michael Shamberg (The Big Chill) notes, “It was a time in cinema when voices about the generations weren’t really reflected in the theaters.” Stiller, on the other hand, credits the phenomenal casting for the realistic tone, “There’s an essence of who each person is there that is very authentic.” Janeane Garofalo, who is an absolutely essential and hilarious presence as Vickie in the film, alongside Steve Zahn’s Sammy – who, unfortunately, couldn’t make the event – says it all came down to the fact that Childress was “speaking her truth.”
After the release of the film, Helen Childress was often referred to as the voice of her generation. “Those relationships were real,” she states, and she’s eternally grateful to everyone involved for bringing her reality to the screen. She’s also pretty laid back about the fact that people have misinterpreted her title all these years, explaining once and for all, “Instead of sound bites it’s like little bites of reality.” But she's quick to add, “It doesn’t matter what I intended, it matters what you guys take from it.” What many have taken from Reality Bites is that it's a snapshot of a time they would never necessarily want to relive that still holds some of their most meaningful and life-changing memories. Because, as Hawke said, it represents a time when these people were still learning who they were and what it was going to take to find their way in the real world. We can’t go back, but thanks to Winona Ryder and Helen Childress, we can always revisit those “little bites of reality” we encountered along the way.