Updated on March 20, 2019.
If Reality Bites has a defining moment, it’s got to be that scene at the gas station. Four 20-something friends with uncertain futures are bearing armfuls of chips, soda, and cigarettes as The Knack’s “My Sharona” starts up on the radio; three of them immediately drop everything to bop along to the song. Cut to exterior: The trio dance in the glowing light of the Food Mart, their car abandoned at the pump to the left, the astral darkness reaching over it all. The tableau is reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting, at once desolate and bright. But the movie’s producer, Michael Shamberg, compared it to pop art. “The Ed Ruscha gas station where they’re dancing under the stars,” he told The New Yorker in 2012, “that’s all Ben.”
“Ben” is Ben Stiller, the director and co-star of Reality Bites, which marks its 25th anniversary this year with a reunion event at the Tribeca Film Festival. Just as the 1994 movie was the first feature-length film Stiller ever directed, it was the first that the writer Helen Childress had ever scripted. She drew from her own life to create the story of Lelaina Pierce, a disaffected college grad (played by Hollywood’s grunge icon, Winona Ryder), who is herself producing a documentary about her equally disaffected friends. As if that weren’t work enough, Lelaina is also attempting to choose between two men who represent her divergent prospects: to sell out or not to sell out. That particular quandary was styled as a hallmark of Generation X, and Reality Bites was perhaps the most polished of a bunch of mainstream attempts to portray the ambivalent cohort. “This is the movie that has been both praised as the last word on X-ers and damned as Hollywood’s slickest effort yet to exploit them,” Frank Rich of The New York Times declared upon the film’s release.