If adulthood came with a manual, we’d know that all of life’s problems can be solved with five bucks and a conversation – and maybe Frampton Comes Alive. At least, according to 1994’s Generation X classic Reality Bites. Maligned as a self-indulgent rallying cry for the slacker generation, the romantic comedy captured an entire generation’s crippling anxiety ushered in by adulthood. And if there’s anything we can glean from the film, it’s that the general uncertainty accompanying life doesn’t stop after your twenties. With that in mind, we put together a list of the most enduring lessons the movie gave us in light of the blockbuster soundtrack’s 20th anniversary.
Creativity doesn’t always trump consumerism.
In what’s perhaps the most jarring realization to post-college grads, creative idealism doesn’t always prevail in the face of commoditization. Throughout the film, aspiring documentarian Lelaina Pierce follows her post collegiate pals as she films their everyday struggles ranging from unemployment to romantic triangles. Set against the backdrop of moment-defining tracks like Dinosaur Jr’s angst-ridden “Turnip Farm”, she captures the unveiled fears that plague their newfound adulthood, and sets out to produce a melodramatic documentary in the hopes of selling it to PBS.
Instead, the footage winds up in the hands of her cable-executive boyfriend, Michael, who pitches her film snippets to his bosses at his MTV-like station. From there, Lelaina’s artistic endeavors are gnarled into a sleazy reality show akin to the Real World, complete with awkward sexual ramblings over Salt-N-Pepa’s libidinous jam “Let’s Talk About Sex”. As Leilana’s dreams evaporate into a tawdry, tricked out video, there’s no starker realization for the audience that youthful idealism will ultimately be defiled by a culture devoted to nihilism.
On the other hand, emotional connections can be formed over a Big Gulp.
“The Big Gulp,” muses Leilana, “Is the most profound invention of our generation.” Sitting with Michael atop his car at the end of their first date, the couple share intimate conversation and wax poetic about simplicity versus materialism. As Peter Frampton croons softly in the background, the odd couple form an awkward but endearing bond over convenience store drinks and astronomy, proving that a shared collective can indeed exist in the crux of pop culture saturation.
No matter how complicated adulthood is, life’s answers can be found in elementary lessons.
As the film progresses, it’s evident that constant battles waged in life’s complexities give way to a growing cynicism among the characters. As Leilana wrestles with the strain of unemployment, her attempts to recover job loss devolve into aimless drifting. Her roommate Vickie ruefully grapples with the consequences of promiscuity, and their friend Sammy recounts his struggles coming out to an unaccepting mother. Through it all, the friends find a childlike happiness in the simplicity of School House Rock, appearing their most content when thrashing around to “Conjunction Junction”. The puerile innocence of the scene remind us that just like the elementary jingle, any dilemma can solved by breaking it down to its simplest form.
All you need to be happy is five bucks and a conversation.
While Reality Bites examines the reality of a hyper-commoditized culture, part of the film’s charm is to question the need for excess and materialism. In a scene where the film’s anti-hero Troy jokingly muses over his lack of ambition, he declares with touching honesty, “You see Lainey, this is all we need. A couple smokes, a cup of coffee, and a little bit of conversation. You and me, and five bucks.” Ever the shiftless but artistic layabout, Troy’s words somehow ring true to the audience, as we see an authentic bliss that flourishes between he and Leilana. He offers the possibility that an existential contentment actually exists in the most minimal of moments.
It’s hard to admit you love someone.
The world of resident coffeehouse guitarist Troy, whose days are spent in a rotating door of minimum-wage jobs and whose nights consist of contemplating life with a bit of a buzz on, is rocked when his secret love Lelaina accidentally throws a cigarette into a Michael’s convertible. As a romance between Lelaina and Michael blossoms, it eventually drives Troy into an angry take on “Add It Up” from Violent Femmes’ 1983 self-titled debut.
“Why can’t I get just one kiss?” and “Why can’t I get just one screw?” are just two of many inquisitions Troy directs at Lelaina during a club gig after the two share an intimate night together that leaves her with a hostile, absent former-friend choosing only to communicate via ‘80s alt-rock. It’s a classic case of wanting something when you can’t have it only to realize you wanted it all along.
Oh, and if “Add It Up” isn’t enough Ethan Hawke vocals for you, be sure to check out his original song, the quintessentially ‘90s, “I’m Nuthin”, which appeared on the film’s original soundtrack with lyrics like, “Don’t want no big TV or no flashy garage/ Never would cut it in no corporate job/ People see me coming, they say, ‘Look at that slob’/ Cause you see me, I’m nuthin’, I’m nuthin’.”
Life is just a random lottery of meaningless tragedy and near escapes.
Through the lens of Lelaina’s camera, we learn that Troy’s father not only became absent in his life upon divorcing his mother, but that when he found out he had cancer, he gifted Troy with a pink seashell and said, “Son, the answers are all inside of this.” It’s at this point that the character realizes there’s no point to any of this thing we call life (hence his not-so-sunny disposition), but on the upside, this is also what makes Troy take pleasure in quarter pounders with cheese, the sky before the rain hits, and Camel Straights. You know, the little things.
When Lelaina finds herself in a moment of self-doubt, drowning in general life anxiety, she says to Troy, “I don’t understand why things can’t just go back to normal at the end of the half hour like they do on The Brady Brunch or something.” His response? “Well, ‘cause Mr. Brady died of AIDS. Things don’t turn out like that.” Bleak, but truthful. If life can’t emulate television, perhaps the lesson then is, take pleasure in the details.
Sex is the quickest way to ruin a friendship.
But (double lesson!), it can unlock suppressed love and change your entire life. When a life lesson about sex comes from Vickie, who, at the beginning of the film marks down lover number 66 in her diary, unable to recall his name, a grain of salt is also, most certainly mandatory. When Troy and Lelaina have sex, their friendship is, yes, temporary shattered. But when the pair glue the pieces back together, the lesson turns into: sometimes the risk is 100 percent worth it. One sole complaint with what went down between the two? The lack of an iconic song to mark their tryst. Where’s the “Take My Breath Away” or the “In Your Eyes” or the “Somebody’s Baby”? The simplicity works in the moment, but it still feels like a missed opportunity.
Adulthood is overrated.
The characters in Reality Bites realize this for different reasons, at different times, through different experiences. While Vickie doesn’t want to end up like her parents whose sexless marriage leaves them going to the bathroom in front of one another, Troy laments the nightmarish possibility of toiling away at Radio Shack or Whole Foods. Further, his jaded perspective manifests unfair hatred for TV suit Michael, decrying his yuppie sell-out ideologies. Even in 1994, it’s evident that the downturn of the economy and political struggles faced by young adults proved the timeless notion that ultimately, adulthood isn’t nearly as fun as the road leading to that point.
All you have to be by the time you’re 23 is yourself.
Despite the societal expectations placed on 23-year-olds, what Reality Bites reminds us is that sometimes you just need to get stoned out of a Coke can and get down to “My Sharona” in your local convenience store (trivia aside: Quentin Tarantino is said to have intended to use the song in Pulp Fiction, and this beloved ‘90s classic beat him to it). The scene from which this quote stems is perhaps the most relatable in the entire movie, as Lelaina admits she thought she was going to be somebody by this age, but instead, as she tells a psychic hotline, “I can’t even take care of a Chia Pet!”
As it turns out, recent college graduates didn’t need Facebook to feel inadequate (or just generally weirded out) about their lack of husbands or babies in the ’90s. But the message rings true in 2014: if you don’t quite know who you are yet, you’ll figure it out, just don’t try to be anyone else.
The real world kicks your ass.
If Reality Bites teaches us anything, it’s that leaving the unsullied shelter of childhood to face the evils of a harsh world tests the best of us. As the characters wrestle with the messy and uncomfortable loss of control, they’re forced to revaluate their identities in a scary new world – much like the rest of us. But perhaps the biggest lesson in all this is while the real world kicks our ass, there’s a solace in knowing that the myopia of consumerism is combatted with the simplest lessons learned early on. Relishing in the life enriching experiences of friendship, love and great music may be all we really need.