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The Cast of Reality Bites Celebrates its 25th Anniversary at the Tribeca Film Festival

Looking back at the iconic Generation X love story.

ethan hawke, winona ryder, janeane garofalo, steve zahn in reality bites.

This weekend, the cast and crew of 1994’s Reality Bites reunited for a 25th anniversary screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. Guests included the film’s stars Winona Ryder, Janeane Garofalo, Ethan Hawke, and director Ben Stiller. Screenwriter Helen Childress was also in attendance, along with producers Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher.

Reality Bites was a modest financial success that opened to mixed reviews, but the film quickly took on a second life as one of the defining cinematic portraits of Generation X. The film follows four friends living together in Houston after graduating from college. Lelaina (Winona Ryder) is an earnest documentary filmmaker who takes a soul-crushing job on a cheesy morning talk show. Troy (Ethan Hawke) is an anti-establishment musician who cycles through a series of dead-end jobs. When Lelaina meets yuppy executive Michael (Ben Stiller), she becomes torn between the safety of a mature relationship and her enduring feelings for Troy.

Reality Bites delves into a variety of 90s issues: AIDs, coming out, financial security, and what it means to grow up. It embodies Generation X’s defining ethos: rejecting authority and the concept of “selling out”. The 90s were all about irony and authenticity, a rejection of the conservatism of the 80s. They were also a massively prosperous and economically secure decade, which allowed for the luxury of such idealizations, especially for upper middle class white folks.

Garofalo touched on this during the panel, saying “I think there was pushback that I tend to agree with … This speaks to the authenticity of Helen’s [Childress] story. It doesn’t represent quote-unquote a generation. It represents those people who we would say would be between working class, middle class, white who had the luxury of having those days jobs and things like that. I understand why there was some pushback. That is a blanket statement, a generation. A generation is very very diverse, and there are many stories to tell.”

The cast and crew discussed how the movie has aged, with Stiller saying “I just want to apologize for the way the film fetishizes smoking … It’s out of control the amount of close-ups of cigarettes and cigarettes going into mouths.”

On re-watching the film this weekend, I was struck by just how enjoyable and entertaining it still is. The film is buoyed by warm, authentic performances from its cast, as well as a smart, funny script that captures the twenty-something’s struggle to be an adult. But experiencing it as an adult in my 30s had me drawing very different conclusions.

The biggest disconnect I found was the idolization of Troy Dyer, a character that launched Ethan Hawke as a 90s heartthrob. Troy’s disaffected slacker attitude and commitment to not selling out inspired countless crushes. But he’s no tortured romantic hero: he’s the 90s version of what we now refer to as a “f-ckboy”.

Troy’s treatment of Lelaina is in stark contrast to Michael, who loves and respects her. Looking back, that relationship is healthier and more functional than her relationship with Troy, who belittles her for having ambition and a career. The slacker man may have been a 90s idealization of coolness, but now it just feels lazy and entitled.

The most interesting thing that came out of the panel was the team singling out Winona Ryder as the driving force behind getting the film made. Hawke said, “Winona brought us all together. She wasn’t intimidated at all.” He continued, “I really want to say how much we are all are indebted to Winona using her strength, her power at that moment to care about another woman’s voice … I’m indebted. Winona believed in me. Winona got me this job. This job changed the trajectory of my career entirely.”

Ryder responded by saying, “I always read it just as this great little story about these friends. I never anticipated it becoming—and I don’t even like to say the generation certain letter. I never really saw it as that … I feel like the lucky one. I feel like it couldn’t have been made without every ingredient up here.”

(via The Hollywood Reporter, image: Universal Pictures)

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Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. She currently lives in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband and two poorly behaved rescue dogs. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.