Reality Bites: Revisiting the Nineties Grunge Classic in 2020, with my Teenage Daughter
It’s week four of isolating, the rain is tipping down outside, and now seems as good a time as any, for my teenage daughter to get to know her amazing mother a little better.
And what better way for that, than to introduce her to my favourite movie? A film, which is basically a documentary if you will, for how young people lived in the nineties.
Yep, time to fish out my old DVD of Reality Bites, the grungey classic, staring Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke.
Cozying up on the lounge for viewing, I explain to my daughter, during the opening scene (Winona Ryder giving a valedictorian speech to what looks like a crowded Super Bowl stadium), this movie is totally realistic and so reminiscent of my nineties youth that, I may at times need to wipe away a nostalgic tear.
Also, just quickly, as the movie is already underway, she should definitely think of me in the nineties, as the Winona Ryder character, LeLaina — impossibly luminous, talented, loved by all the guys — only with Janeane Garofalo’s personality (let’s face it, Winona can be a bit of a wet blanket in this film).
Shush mum. I can’t hear what they’re saying.
Sorry, I’ll be quiet now. Oh, also, cool romance, I whisper quickly, it’s basically a love story too!
Let’s watch shall we.
For those rare few who have not seen Reality Bites, it goes like this: Winona, playing the smart and beautiful, Lelaina Pierce, must decide between two romantic options: the super nice Yuppie character, Michael (played by Ben Stiller), and her sexy/unwashed, unemployed slacker housemate, Troy Dyer (played by Ethan Hawke).
Hawke plays Troy to perfection. He’s the grunge hero of the piece and, it seems, somewhat of a complex character. Having failed to graduate college, despite his super high IQ, he now deploys this sharp intellect to great effect throughout the movie, with cool, obscure literary references and carelessly clever put downs to anyone in his vicinity.
I mean, how very 90s.
Watching Reality Bites again, as an adult, a mother and a citizen of the world in 2020, gave me pause. While Hawke’s character, Troy, is still very leading man, I have to say, there are some toxic moments going down in this film I hadn’t noticed before.
Which is weird, because they are so obvious.
So obvious, to be almost a theme. Except not technically a theme in this movie, because, you know, back in the nineties a man being a dick to the object of his affections, clearly meant he lerved her!
Troy’s ‘clever’ put downs are never nastier or more frequent, than when he is addressing Lelaina. This is because Lelaina has previously rejected his romantic overtures, broken his heart and evidently, triggered some deeply, emotionally crippled, defence mechanisms.
Not that Troy can acknowledge that.
In a particularly powerful scene, essentially the climax of the movie, Troy’s alternative band, Hey, That’s My Bike, is playing at a hipster, grunge cool hangout, giving him an opportunity to publicly humiliate Lelaina, who has just arrived to see him play.
Troy takes the stage as lead singer and proceeds to take out his hurt, by dedicating a vicious rendition of The Violent Femmes, Add It Up, to Lelaina. For anyone who remembers this era, particularly through the music of, ‘the Femmes’, this is a resonant moment.
And by that, I mean to say, it’s just awful.
My teenage daughter finally screws up her face in disgust, “What an asshole!”. I nod my head slowly, the truth dawning, the past losing its rosy glow.
Troy Dyer is an asshole.
As I come to terms with this sad new truth, and wonder at how Troy’s asshole-ishness wasn’t apparent to me earlier, it occurs to me that the true horror here, may well be that Troy’s cruelty seemingly only serves to make him sexier.
To Lelaina and presumably all girls watching back in the 90s, this is attractive. As if his greasy hair, commitment phobia and useless education weren’t already enough.
To wit, Troy and Lelaina end the movie as a loved-up couple, in what is clearly an upbeat and happy ending. And even though I’ve seen this movie a dozen times, on this occasion, it took me by surprise.
Why, Lelaina? I cry.
Like watching any movie with my daughter, and because I am a super, over- involved, unrepentant helicopter-parent, I wondered exactly what message Reality Bites was sending her and also what questions it raised for us to think about.
For example, what are the chances of Troy overcoming his fear of inadequacy and learning how to effectively communicate his insecurities, rather than lashing out defensively at the person closest to him? Should Lelaina be putting up with that, even if he’s trying to sort himself out? And for the record, there were no signs Troy even thinks he should.
Witness Troy’s entreaty to win Lelaina back (it worked!):
I’m sorry, Leleina, but you can’t navigate me. I might do mean things, and I might hurt you, and I might run away without your permission, and you might hate me forever. And I know that that scares the shit out of you, because I’m the only real thing that you have.
Other questions, also worth asking while we’re here, might be: what happens when Lelaina discovers she doesn’t understand Troy’s music? Does Hey, That’s My bike, just do covers? Are they getting regular gigs? Is she expected to go and watch him play, every time?
And, would the white doily dress, the one she wears on her date with the Ben Stiller charcter, have looked better with another bra?
So many questions.
Funnily enough, Reality Bites, may serve better now, not as a fabulously cool rom-com/doco on 90s youth, but as a lesson in toxic relationships, (the good-looking young people, cool grunge clothes, and awesome sound track just being an added bonus).
In successfully depicting a classic male character trope — the bad boy, who just needs the love of a good woman, to overcome his hurt and resentment — the film inadvertently portrays a romance everyone can see has little chance of being healthy for either character.
It was gratifying then, to see my own teenager recognise that for herself. So maybe, we are getting somewhere and if this was today, Lelaina would have recognised Troy was crossing a line, that he was not capable of a healthy relationship with her, and then got the hell out of that unhygienic group house.
Taking the awesome Janeane Garofalo with her.