Reality Bites (1994) – A Second Look

“Don’t look back. You can never look back” – Don Henley, The Boys of Summer.

Some sentiments last a lifetime. Memories from the past become immortalized into permanent nostalgia. It can be a first kiss of a high school crush, a college graduation, or seeing a favorite band perform live. Movies also act in this way: whenever The Shawshank Redemption or Pulp Fiction comes on the screen, I am compelled to keep watching. I get brought back to the 90’s all over again, as if I was watching these movies for the first time. I still love them just as much today; watching Andy reunite with Red (spoiler alert) and hearing Jules recite The Bible before shooting Brad are scenes that stand the test of time. Coincidentally, Reality Bites was released in 1994, the same year as both The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction. But unlike the two classics, my feelings towards this movie are quite different today from the past.

I actually saw Reality Bites about seven years after it was released: I was only 12 when it first came out. It’s about four friends in Texas, freshly graduated from college, and faced with the reality of adulthood. Lelaina is a struggling filmmaker; Troy is a rebellious musician; Vickie is a promiscuous Gap employee; and Sammy is a closeted homosexual in the conservative State. Lelaina is making a documentary about their lives when she eventually meets Michael, a TV executive who wants to date her and air her documentary on his channel. She agrees to both, but the edits made to Lelaina’s documentary by Michael’s producers represent the commercialization and artistic compromising of Corporate America that she and her three friends despise. Predictably, Lelaina and Troy were in love with each other the whole time and they end up together.

Back then, I thought the four friends represented a cool counter-culture of artistic integrity, a purity of youth, and an anti-establishment spirit that wasn’t motivated by money. Today, these characters seem less sophisticated and more misguided and naïve. Troy used to be a man of principles, but now he comes off as a rebel without a cause. Lelaina was an underground documentarian with an original idea, but maybe she was just a novice filmmaker who lacked the skills to make a good product. Michael was a sellout who was kowtowing to The Man, but should we overlook his strong work ethic and ambition? Lelaina, Troy, and her friends are dreamers, and I appreciate that, but what’s a dream without direction and drive? If the movie showed Troy approaching record labels in an attempt to get his music picked up or Lelaina going to different directors to get the tips of her trade, I would have more respect for them. Instead, they spent less time doing and more time complaining and lamenting. There is no replacement for hard work: that is where passion lies.

I will say, however, that the music of Reality Bites continues to bring me back my younger days. Lisa Loeb’s Stay was a colossal hit back in the 90’s. Lelaina and Vickie singing Squeeze’s Tempted in the car is still a great scene, and perhaps the most memorable scene of all occurs when Lelaina, Vickie, and Sammy break into a spontaneous dance craze to My Sharona in a local gas station.

It’s a funny thing to revisit something from the past, and a funnier thing, still, to realize that the sentiment has changed.  Our past feelings are different because we are different. Whether it’s due to the callousness or maturity of adulthood, we will look back and change our minds about the past. I imagine the Baby Boomers have a similar experience with The Graduate as I do with Reality Bites: what was once a movie about young adults with youthful exuberance and hope is now a movie about kids who don’t really know a damn thing about life because they haven’t lived enough yet. Perhaps that is why Don Henley urges us not to look back-we may not like what we see.

– Chris.

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