The film that captured the struggles of Generation X-ers navigating post-college life was revisited as part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s retrospective series and we’re bursting with fruit flavor!
The cast of Reality Bites, including Winona Ryder, Janeane Garofalo, Ethan Hawke, and Ben Stiller (who also served as director) reunited in front of hundreds of passionate fans on Saturday afternoon and looked back on the landmark comedy.
The film follows Lelaina (Ryder), an aspiring documentarian who shuns corporations and fights the good fight against the man, and her pals played by Ethan Hawke, Janeane Garofalo, Steve Zahn. Stiller stars a suit-wearing “yuppie” vying for Lelaina’s affections, becoming a romantic rival to Hawke’s character Troy.
Despite largely resembling the classic rom-com, the story tackles prominent issues from the decade — coming out as gay, the AIDs epidemic, and the harsh realities of the job market among them.
The post-screening Q&A kicked off with a surprise burst of ‘90s nostalgia — Lisa Loeb performing the hit track “Stay (I Missed You),” which was featured on the film’s soundtrack.
Though the core themes of Reality Bites still resonate with audiences today, there’s one aspect of the film that hasn’t aged particularly well.
“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,” Stiller joked during the sit-down, where he was also joined by screenwriter Helen Childress, producer Michael Shamberg, and executive producer Stacey Sher.
Ryder said she’s always been surprised that the film is frequently credited with capturing “the voice of a generation.”
“I always read it just as this great little story about these friends,” she shared. “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.”
Yet Garofalo was quick to point out that equating the viewpoints expressed in the film as defining an entire group is problematic, noting the story centers on a very specific class of people.
“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.”
Hawke still appreciates what a rarity the project was, in terms of how his character’s deeply flawed nature and repeated mistakes are forgiven.
“Both men incredibly flawed,” he says of his and Stiller’s character Michael. “In life, we do the wrong thing all the time, and it’s so difficult for us to forgive ourselves,” Hawke said. “We behave badly but we’re trying to learn. And the movie ends up showing how hard it is as young people to learn your way. You have to live your way through these things.”
Something Hawke put far less thought into was Troy’s grundy, unkempt look.
“That was my look babe. It worked,” Hawke said. “It was called actually doing nothing. It was exactly the way I looked all the time back then.”
The actor also expressed his gratitude to Ryder, who not only took a chance on an unknown screenwriter by signing on to the production and convincing him to do the same.
“Winona brought us all together. She wasn’t intimidated at all.” Hawke shared, “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.”
“It also changed the trajectory of my career,” Stiller added. “None of it would have happened if Winona wouldn’t have said, ‘I want to do this movie.’ It just wouldn’t have happened.”
The presenting of such a well-rounded female voice in the film is something that still resonates with viewers.
“I’ve heard from people that it was inspirational for them to see a young woman to get sole credit,” Childress said. “I would have to thank Ben and Stacy and Michael for not being rewritten.”
The now iconic cast was almost slightly different, with Garofalo revealing she was actually fired from the film halfway through the shoot only to be re-hired.
“As was my wont, I was behaving in an immature manner,” the funny woman admitted. “I was not respectful of authority. I was told I was let go.”
The 54-year-old, who says she was also let go briefly from 1996 comedy The Truth About Cats and Dogs, is less unruly these days.
“I’ve since become more mature,” she shared. “I’m in the AARP.”
Stiller cites Sunday’s reunion as a significant highlight for him.
He shared, “It’s emotional for me, to hear the movie with an audience, to hear your reactions, to feel it together and to still be here 25 years later.”