(A quick prelude before the actual review begins. I’M BACK! So, I’ve been on a hiatus since early November. Long time readers/friends in real life know that I’ve been working on a screenplay. I’ve written five, count ’em, five drafts of my original screenplay Aftertaste. I’ve plotted out scene-by-scene the direction of two other screenplays and written about 30 pages of the actual script of another. I’ve read Syd Field’s book on screenwriting and just generally, I’ve been in the midst of a creative renaissance. It’s been really fantastic. So take into account all of the writing I’ve been doing, the fact that I had finals at the beginning of December and I’ve spent the last month and a half as the assistant manager at my local FYE working 30-40 hours a week, it’s easy to see why I’ve been too busy to update this blog. But, I have THREE consecutive days off in a row from work for the first time in what feels like an eternity, so I thought I’d return to the hobby that got me my internship in NYC last spring as well as the hobby that inspired me to write my screenplay in the first place. I’m back everybody!)
Barry Levinson’s Diner is one of the great under-appreciated coming of age films of all time. It didn’t gloss over the awkward pains and embarrassments of growing up or try to tidy up the ambiguities we face as we enter the real world. With subtlety and a terrific cast, it succeeded in delivering a realism that almost no other coming-of-age tale could hope to equal. 1994’s Reality Bites, directed by Ben Stiller, has a reputation as being the ultimate Gen-X coming of age film and while it has moments of almost heart-breaking veracity and is supported by a stellar cast at the top of their game, the film at times comes off like a blatant hodge-podge of 90s hot-button issues.
The mid-90s was the end of an era. Grunge was beginning its slow descent into being corporate sell-outs and only a few years removed from post-grunge atrocities like Nickelback and Creed. Generations of teenagers who had rejected the “Generation Me” mindset of their Reaganite parents were about to learn the cold hard truth that their own counterculture would eventually have to grow up. You can fight the power as long as you want but eventually, someday, somebody’s going to have to pay the bills. In the angst-fueled Reality Bites, a small group of friends face the post-college world and come to terms with becoming an adult in their own painful ways.
College valedictorian Leilana Pierce (The Age of Innocence‘s Winona Ryder) thinks she’s on the right track. An aspiring documentary film-maker, she’s a production assistant on a popular television talk show. She’s beginning a healthy relationship with TV producer Michael (Ben Stiller), and her parents just gave her a BMW. But when her slacker best friend Troy (Ethan Hawke), who may also be in love with her, moves in with Leilana and her friend Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), Troy and Leilana’s complicated history and Leilana’s unexpected unemployment force everyone in their circle of friends to grow up more quickly than they expected.
Similar to Diner, much of the film’s appeal can be attributed to the movie’s strong cast. As terrible as this may be to say, Ben Stiller’s acting career likely peaked with this performance as the sensitive and mature but still screwed up Michael. Winona Ryder’s career performances fluctuate from brilliant (Heathers) to awful (The Age of Innocence) but she was at her best here as the ambitious, bitchy, vulnerable, and lovelorn Leilana. It was a demanding role which required her to vascillate between sympathetic audience surrogate and angsty, whiny brat at the drop of the hat and she pulled it off.
The real star of the film though was the intense and naturalistic performance of Ethan Hawke. Although the writing of the Troy character occasionally bordered on ridiculous and some of his actual dialogue was absurd, Hawke’s mesmerizing performance made you forget any flaws with the writing. With his piercing stare and James Dean wounded vulnerability, Hawke turned this performance into the stepping stone for the rest of his star career although said star has been on the wane lately. It’s a shame Hawke never become a true top-tier talent.
The film’s writing doesn’t always due justice to the film’s wonderful cast. Although the angsty, self-centered narcissism of the film’s cast may have seemed authentic and gripping in the mid-90s, it makes the cast seem remarkably unlikeable for most of the film and not necessarily in interesting ways. And while Leilana’s characterization seems sufficiently 3-dimensional, the supporting players often act in ways that are utterly unbelievable and the film can never seem to get a tag on what role they want Troy to inhabit. That may have been the intention but at times, it just makes the film seem muddled.
And on that same note, the film’s use of “facing the camera” vignettes (which are part of Leilana’s in-universe documentary) tell parts of the story to directly when a more subtle approach would have been affective. The film isn’t afraid to “tell” the audience the story it wants to portray rather than showing it. When the film tackles themes like sexuality and finding a meaningful job or alienation, it does them well but Reality Bites is just as likely to have a character make some type of bland platitude directly into the camera and insult the audience’s intelligence in the process.
Minor complaints aside, Reality Bites is still a wonderfully charming indie romance and it’s easy to see why so many people that were teenagers in the 1990s find it so meaningful. My screenplay Aftertaste actually shares many thematic similarities to Reality Bites and could almost have the exact same logline. So, this film gave me some ideas about some pitfalls that I need to avoid in my own film as I continue to write more drafts of Aftertaste in the hope of selling it. If you’re a fan of indie coming of age films, Reality Bites might not be perfect, but it’s a genuine and deeply enjoyable gem from the indie film’s heyday.
Final Score: B+