By Owen Gleiberman
February 18, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST
  • Movie

In one of the many sly and tenderly funny moments in REALITY BITES (Universal, PG-13), Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder), a recent college graduate, sits in a Houston coffee shop along with her roommate, the promiscuous, smoky-voiced Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), who has had an AIDS test and is nervously awaiting the result. Obsessed with the worst-case scenario, Vickie explains that she can’t stop picturing herself as a character on Melrose Place-you know, a new character, one with AIDS, one all the other kids would feel sorry for. Confronted with this tearfully absurd confession, Lelaina assures her friend that she has nothing to be scared of. But then, as she pauses to reconsider what Vickie is going through, Lelaina begins to grow a little teary-eyed herself. With a gaze of the purest, most wistful understanding, she adds, ”Melrose Place is a really good show.” In context, that’s a priceless line. And the entire scene, which pinpoints how the most ominous fears can find expression in the trashiest pop daydreams, speaks volumes about a generation that has been raised on both. Written by 24- year-old Helen Childress and directed by Ben Stiller, who’s best known for the wickedly sharp-edged TV comedy series The Ben Stiller Show, Reality Bites is the first Generation X movie to view its characters from the inside out, not simply as media-age confections but as intricate human beings. Which isn’t to say that the film skimps on pop sociology. Most of the characters work at measly, no-future jobs (Vickie is a Gap salesclerk) and they tend to make emotional connections via their shared saturation in junk culture (Peter Frampton nostalgia, Big Gulp soft drinks from 7-Eleven). Sustained less by ambition than by pipe dreams of creativity in a world that no longer rewards it, the characters in Reality Bites are still living like college kids, hanging out, drinking, flirting, goofing on each other. Lelaina, an aspiring filmmaker, is making a documentary about her buddies, and there are scruffy camcorder sequences of her and friends interspersed throughout the film. They’re a way of cuing us to see that these people view life through a lens. ) Structured as a series of loose-limbed comic riffs, Reality Bites is, in form, an elemental love triangle. Lelaina, who works as the production assistant for an unctuous morning-TV host, is torn between two men: her best friend, Troy (Ethan Hawke), a loquacious, proudly unemployed grunge-rock musician who keeps trying to nudge their relationship beyond the platonic; and Michael (Stiller), an earnest music-video executive who works for In Your Face TV and ends up using her documentary clips on the channel-with hilariously disastrous results (will anyone be able to watch MTV’s bogus The Real World again?). One of the pleasures of Reality Bites is how cleverly the film keeps undermining our expectations. Michael, far from being your standard movie yuppie (i.e., a phony jerk), turns out to be a genuine romantic, his corporate style muted by a sweetly bumbling ardor. And though Lelaina shuns Troy’s advances because she claims she doesn’t want to risk losing his friendship, what’s moving about their off-balance, is-it-love-or-just-an- illusion relationship is the way it emerges from their particular era. In Reality Bites, the central economic fact underlying Generation X-the dead-end job market-has romantic and spiritual implications as well. If the characters keep postponing adulthood, that’s largely because, in the downsized, no- illusions ’90s, adulthood doesn’t seem worth rushing into. Yet the result is an eerie fraternalism, in which everyone seems to be brothers and sisters, members of an eternal Brady Bunch. That’s the key romantic stumbling block for Lelaina and Troy: not just their friendship but whether they can give up the purity of being pampered children. The actors play this out with a gentle fervor that helps make Reality Bites the loveliest youth romance since Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything (1989). After years of lulling audiences with his sleepy-eyed beauty, Ethan Hawke has suddenly grown up into a magnetic performer. He gives Troy’s philosophical bohemianism complex hints of selfishness, even meanness (Troy is actually less of a nice guy than Michael), yet when he finally reveals his feelings to Lelaina, it’s a stirring moment. And Ryder, good as she was in The Age of Innocence, gives her first true star performance here. Beneath her crisp, postfeminist manner, Lelaina is bristling with confusion, and Ryder lets you read every crosscurrent of temptation and anxiety, the way her tentative search for love slowly grows into a restless hunger. Yearning, hilarious, lost within their precocious self-awareness, these slackers have soul. A