Helen Childress‘ only movie to date remains the spokesperson (spokesfilm?) for a generation that is 1994’s Reality Bites. The many issues and concerns of that group known as Gen X is addressed with humor and sincerity through characters like Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), a promiscuous GAP manager who fears she has AIDS, Sammy (Steve Zahn), a man who struggles with the notion of coming out to his parents, Troy (Ethan Hawke), an unemployed couch surfer with loose musical aspirations in the way of a band called Hey, That’s My Bike, and, most importantly, Lelaina (Winona Ryder, in a defining role), a fresh college graduate who is rudely awakened by the job market of adulthood.
Working as a production assistant on a cheesy Houston morning show called Good Morning, Grant!, Lelaina must swallow her pride every day in the hope that Mr. Gubler (John Mahoney)–as she so respectfully calls him–will broadcast some of the work she’s been doing for her own documentary project, a sort of collage of the confusions waylaying her friends and everyone else in their age group. His lack of interest begins to wear her down, yet she is still able to enjoy the simplicity of hanging out with Troy, Vickie and Sammy while watching reruns of One Day At A Time.
It is, in fact, as they’re watching this show that the hunger plague strikes Vickie and Sammy, who asks, “Lelaina, if we promise to pay you back will you spot us a pizza?” Lelaina replies, “I don’t have any cash.” Sammy’s return is an exemplar of everything lovable about the 90s in all of its glory as he points out, “Dominoes takes checks.” Having an epiphany after talking on the phone to Michael Grates (Ben Stiller), a TV executive she’s supposed to have a date with, Lelaina takes out her gas card, a somewhat insulting graduation present her father gave her. Vickie smirks, “We’re going to eat gas.”
Lelaina, in her brilliance, of course intends to use this gas card for the many foods and beverages offered at the gas station. As Troy, evermore in love with her, tries to inquire about who Michael is, Vickie and Sammy interrupt by saying, “Hey, Vickie just figured something out. Something wonderful.” Vickie then reveals the news, “Evian is naive spelled backwards.” This sort of satirical remark on brands and all that they represent in the postmodern twentieth century is pervasive throughout all of Reality Bites. The film even opens with Lelaina’s rant against the corporate wasteland of modern life as she notes in her commencement speech, “And they wonder why those of us in our twenties refuse to work an eighty-hour workweek just so we can afford to buy their BMWs. Why we aren’t interested in the counterculture that they invented, as if we did not see them disembowel their revolution for a pair of running shoes.” But Vickie’s ability to make fun of the absurdity of now is what helps Lelaina feel less hopeless about her future–and why she joins in on an in-the-moment bout of fun by dancing recklessly to The Knack’s “My Sharona,” a song choice notable for its lack of meaning other than being something infectious to move to.
As she loses herself and the worries of her job or if she’s “going to be something by the age of 23,” the iconography of this impromptu dance sequence is both clearly 90s while still being timeless: it is the things that don’t cost money that make us the happiest, in spite of the fact that we live in a society that brainwashes to think just the opposite. In the mid-90s those simple pleasures were much easier to grab a hold of (now, it’s unlikely to be able to run a gas card credit card scam on people with half as much facility). And though Troy’s staunch stoicism tempers the semi-cheesiness of this classic scene from cinema history, it is apparent that a golden age was occurring amid the seeming woes of the era.