It's been twenty (!!) years since Reality Bites, the seminal text on Generation X (and The Knack), was released to theaters. How do the characters stack up in hindsight? And how did they stack up without it?
It's hard to tell just how well Reality Bites pinned down Gen X back in the day. Coming on the heels of something like Singles—which was always touted as more "authentic," either because it took place in Seattle or because Cameron Crowe's film felt more studied and less garish about those early '90s tropes—Reality Bites felt slicker and thus easier to dismiss. It was certainly easier to point out how much you hated the characters therein. And yet it's clear which film has endured in the hearts and minds of film fans, even those who profess not to like it. However, as someone who was a bit younger than the characters in the movie at the time, the fact that Reality Bites may have reflected the pop-culture presentation of Gen X better than actual Gen X only added to the film's mystique. I missed the slacker era by about four years, but boy did that ever put me in prime position to idolize it. The sarcasm! The smoking! The wall-to-wall pop culture referencing!
Watching Reality Bites in 2014 is a much different experience, though less pleasant. Today, rather than anything aspirational, the film comes across as a time capsule of, if not what Generation X was, but what we all thought it was. The film opens with Lelaina (Winona Ryder) delivering a valedictory speech that seeks to shame the Baby Boomer generation for squandering the promise of their revolution in exchange for consumer culture. Twenty years later, it's hard not to see Gen X as having done the same thing, if for different reasons (if the Boomers chose '80s excess actively, Gen X got tired of fighting it and bailed).
So which characters hold up best to such hindsight? We ranked them then (using our patented time-machine technology) and now.
Reality Bites Character Power Rankings (1994)
1. Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke). Troy achieves the rare double in this film, as he's both wildly attractive and incredibly cool. The way he shoots down Michael at every turn in a master class in getting the upper hand on your romantic rivals. Michael never stood a chance, really, for Lelaina's heart. And how great is it to see someone actually stand by their principles for once? "I'm not under any orders to make the world a better place, Lelaina." Damn right.
2. Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder). I want to be Winona Ryder. That's basically all that needs to be said. She takes some time to figure out her life in this movie, but she refused to let her artistic vision be compromised by Michael's bastardized MTV version of it. She also totally chose the right guy in the end, even if it looked touch-and-go for a while there that she might spurn Troy for Michael. Way to pull it out at the end, girl! And that prank she pulled on Good Morning, Grant was hilarious and not in any way a bridge-burning disaster that will end up haunting her and dooming her burgeoning career in its infancy, dooming her to a life as a "blogger," a word I just made up that means professionally-in-flux. Plus, points for ingenuity with that gas-card scam on her dad. Smart.
3. Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo): Vickie is the best. She's the funniest, for sure. Her Melrose Place analogy is scarily accurate. If I want to be Winona Ryder, I want Vickie to be my best friend, for sure. I'm really glad she didn't have AIDS after all. She shouldn't have unprotected sex with members of Soul Asylum, though!
4. Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn): I kinda don't have any way to relate to Sammy, unfortunately. He seems like a great guy, and his and Vickie's "pre-enactment" of his coming out speech to his mom is really funny, but it's impossible to put myself in his shoes. Let's talk about someone else.
5. Michael Grates (Ben Stiller): UGH Michael, he's so much the worst. Stop trying to be cool! You're so not! The thing about Michael is that he presents himself as this completely responsible adult and shrewd businessman, and he's neither of those things. One look at the fucked-up dynamics of Lelaina and Troy should have had him dropping her like a hot potato and running for the hills. And professionally, what kind of IDIOT wouldn't be able to see what a hatchet job his network did to Lelaina's film? So glad he got dumped.
Reality Bites Character Power Rankings (2014)
1. Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo): Vickie holds up incredibly well to scrutiny twenty years later, as sidekicks often do. Garofalo's strengths as a stand-up in the early '90s really helped her sell the more observational and pop-culture bits in the movie. She also fires off the quintessential line of dialogue in the entire movie, hollering at Lelaina and Troy to "just do it and get it over with." Also, hi, she works for a living, even if it's just at The Gap. I've never been on anyone's side more than when she told Lelaina to fuck off after that "I'm not gonna work at The Gap for chrissakes" line. Kind of bummed at the ways the movie used the AIDS scare as a punishment for her perceived promiscuity, though.
2. Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn): Oh, Sammy. The fate of the marginalized '90s gay sidekick was not a fun one. I suppose it could have been worse and he could've died of AIDS or something, fulfilling Vickie's Melrose Place prophecy in the most cliched way possible. Still, watching the movie today, I want so much more of Sammy. And that random boyfriend he gets near the end! As it stands, his and Vickie's pre-enactment is one of the movie's best scenes, and if you watch the movie from a certain angle, it becomes the story of Sammy, who has the exact same attraction to Troy that Lelaina does, only he sees Troy with much clearer eyes and doesn't bother with that noise at all. It also deserved to be noted that Sammy is afraid of anal sex, which puts him on the cutting edge of 2014 gay TV programming. I'm sorry I refused to identify with you as a teen, Sammy.
3. Louise (Anne Meara): "Define irony." Nailed it. No character seemed scarier in 1994 than Meara's intimidating newspaperwoman. For sure she made me nail down my literary terms before I even dared embark on a job interview. No character feels more triumphant in 2014, a damn professional showing this dabbling little punk just how much she has to learn.
4. Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder): Yes, Lelaina is incredibly frustrating to watch from an adult perspective. That Good Morning Grant job looked like a nightmare, but she fucked that one up all on her own, so it's hard to feel too sorry for her. Also, it's a cliche to talk about at this point, but that documentary she was making was a go-nowhere piece of navel-gazing. That Michael and Fake MTV made it even worse doesn't absolve her of her artistic solipsism. That said, she remains a relatably flawed character, and her thought process as she navigates the Troy/Michael thing, even if she ultimately makes the wrong decision.
5. Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke): Oh my GOD, is there a more insufferable character to watch in 2014 than Reality Bites's Troy Dyer? I don't even think it was a bad acting performance by Hawke, but every single line reading is dripping with an effort to seem cool. The intellectual one-upsmanship is embarrassing to watch, as is the incredibly obvious way in which he telegraphs that Michael bothers him, not to mention the mind-boggling number of times he tries to pass off his laziness as nobility. A paying job will not give you cancer, Troy! The movie does have the good sense to call him on that last one, but it's hard not to see that as getting swept up under the rug when he ends up in couch-ful bliss with Lelaina at the end.
6. Michael Grates (Ben Stiller): Somehow, after all this hindsight, Michael still ends up at the bottom. It's tempting to say that Lelaina chose the wrong guy at the end by picking the insufferable Troy, but the truth is that she shouldn't have chosen Michael either. It's the same conundrum that faced another seminal 1994 character, My So-Called Life's Angela Chase, for whom the truth was that neither Jordan Catalano nor Brian Krakow were the right pick. I'll stand by my 1994 impression of Michael, who is neither the responsible adult nor the smart businessperson that he presents himself as. That mess of an edit on Lelaina's movie was exactly the dealbreaker she took it as. Also, "What is your glitch?" is a terrible comeback.