Generation’s View of Reality Ben Stiller’s 1994 film, Reality Bites, portrays the broad based struggles of America’s twenty somethings through a lighthearted glimpse into the lives of the movie’s main characters. Four friends, recently graduated from college, find themselves over-educated and under-employed, a theme reiterated in the lives of many Generation Xers according to critic Marilyn Gardner. She states, “unemployment is higher for those under 25 then it is for the workforce as a whole.” (pg. 14, col.
1) Though Reality Bites bills itself as “a comedy about love in the 90’s,” the film is more of a commentary on the issues facing young adults today (Kempley, Sec. C. , pg 7).
The central theme concerning the lives of Generation Xers is supported by three main motifs throughout the film: the love triangle between Lalaina Pierce (Winona Ryder), Michael Grates (Ben Stiller), and Troy Dire (Ethan Hawke); social issues facing the characters such as AIDS, homosexuality, and divorce; and recurring references to television, the entertainment of choice for the “MTV Generation.” The romantic relationships between Lalaina, Michael, and Troy stage the most obvious contrasts between Generation Xers and their nemesis: materialistic yuppies. The three characters form a conti um between the quintessential 20 ish “slacker” (Troy), the white collar, “nouveau riche” yuppie (Michael), and the quasi-slacker (Lalaina), who is somewhere in between.
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Troy, Lalaina’s long haired, un-shaven, grungy dressing best friend exemplifies the anti-materialistic, devil-may-care attitude of Generation X. In fact, when Vicky lets Troy move into the girls’ apartment after being fired from his twelfth job (a clerk at a news stand), Lalaina complains that the frequently boozing, cigarette-smoking, unemployed Troy will “turn this place into a den of slack.” Though Troy is arguably one of the smartest of the bunch, he didn’t have enough credits to graduate from the university. In classic slacker fashion, Troy has the intelligence but not the drive to succeed in a materialistic world. Rather, he thrives on the simplistic: “you see Lane, this is all we need, a couple smokes, a cup of coffee, and a little conversation. You, me, and five bucks.” Conversely, Michael Grates, Lalaina’s other love interest is a white collar professional who drives a sporty Saab convertible with a cellular phone, dresses in Italian suits, and lives in a stylish apartment. Michael is a producer for In Your Face Television, a spoof on MTV, the channel of choice for our generation.
Though Michael is young enough to be included in Generation X, his ideals revolve around possessions as a measure of success, something no authentic member of Generation X would tolerate. Somewhere in the middle is Lalaina, a strange mixture of the two. She is the valedictorian of her graduating class and is briefly employed by a television talk show as an intern-like production assistant until she is fired. In her valedictory address, she condemns the BMW driving older generation of her parents who have left a lack of employment and natural resources for her and her peers. Ironically, her graduation gift from her father is a used BMW, which she concedes to drive until she can afford an inexpensive car of her own. Lalaina’s unemployment leads her to look for jobs where she is inexperienced (working as a news journalist) to over-qualified (flipping burgers at Burger ama), none of which are fruitful.
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Lalaina then becomes a slacker herself by eating chips and chain smoking in her pajamas for hours a day. The social issues facing the characters in the film are what differentiates Reality Bites from other so-called generational flicks such as Rebel Without a Cause, The Graduate, and The Big Chill. In one of the opening montages, Vicky (Jeanne Garofalo) is shown writing lover #66 in her little black book, the camera zooms in on her face as she struggles to remember his first name. She later finds out that a previous partner has tested positive for the HIV virus. Thus Vicky goes to be tested as well, and comments, rather cynically, “the free clinic AIDS test, a rite of passage for our generation.” Another one of the friends, Sammy, agonizes over how to tell his mother he is gay. Yet another problem facing the youths is the prevalence of divorce among their parents.
Both Troy and Lalaina’s parents are divorced; as critic Marilyn Gardner points out ” (Generation X) is the first to be widely affected by staggeringly high parental divorce rates.” (pg. 14, col. 1) The group faces these problems in addition to difficulties finding employment that suits their education level. Vicky is the store manager at the Gap, the store for Generation X’s fashion plates, while Troy, Sammy, and Lalaina are unemployed. Generation X has been weaned on television; one critic says “this film reaches out with the ethos of the cathode-ray tube” (Steinhauser, Sec. 4, pg.
In fact, it is a film “obviously made by (and for) people who were raised on television rather than movies,” says Steinhauser. The television theme is evident throughout the film in narrative and technical aspects. In terms of actual dialogue, characters are constantly making references to T. V. shows.
One especially poignant occasion occurs when Lalaina is upset and asks Troy, “Why can’t everything just go back to normal at the end of the half hour, like the ‘Brady Bunch’?” To which he replies, “because Mr. Brady died of AIDS.” At another point in the movie, the characters are playing a drinking game reciting episodes from the sitcom “Good Times.” Also, both Lalaina and Michael’s careers revolve around the television industry. Their particular work includes talk shows and music television, inventions unique to the younger set. Another important aspect of the television motif is Lalaina’s project: a documentary of her friends. She, like director Ben Stiller, is making a commentary on the lives of Generation Xers (James, Sec. C, pg.
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Most of the dramatic moments in the film, such as Vicky’s HIV test, take place on Lalaina’s video. Throughout the film normal shots are interspersed with shots as seen through Lalaina’s viewfinder. This constantly reminds the viewer that we are not only being entertained by the film, but are privy to inside peaks in the lives of Generation Xers via Lalaina’s documentary.
Most of the mise-en-scene properties in the film revolve around the television motif as well. The lighting, setting, costumes and make-up are similar to a sitcom. The editing, too, compliments the emphasis on television. There are numerous times when a new scene begins with a close-up of the television airing a seventies program rerun.
Many pans and tilts of the apartment reveal television sets, T. V. Guides, remote controls, VCR’s and large, comfy chairs in which to view the sets. The love triangle of Lalaina, Michael, and Troy, the age-specific problems the youths face, and the television motif all serve to make Reality Bites a Generation X film, not just as a simple romantic comedy. The dialogue between the characters and technical aspects center around the ups and downs of the friends. The love triangle is resolved in a manner that highlights the Generation X theme.
In the end, Lalaina chooses Troy over Michael, the fitting end for a Generation X icon. Works Cited Gardner, Marilyn. “Generation X: The Starting Line.” The Christian Science Monitor. (March 24, 1994) pp 14. James, Caryn. “Coming of Age in Snippets: Life as a Twenty something.” The New York Times.
(February 18, 1994) sec. C, pp 3. Kempley, Rita. “Reality Bites.” The Washington Post.
(July 22, 1994) sec. C, pp 7. Steinhauser, Jennifer. “Ennui Goes Better With Coke.” The New York Times. (March 6, 1994) sec. 4, pp 4.
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Stiller, Ben. Reality Bites. With Ethan Hawke, Winona Ryder, and Ben Stiller. MCA/Universal Studios, 1994..