‘Reality Bites,’ ‘Slackers’ and the Movies Made About Underemployed Youth

Occupy Wall Street started a year ago this Monday. The movement came out of a recession and an underemployed youth culture.

So, of course I want to look at a film that follows the frustrations that young people face in an economic crisis. Unfortunately, save for Lena Dunham productions, there isn’t a lot of that coming out right now – and that issue might be for another post. (As in: our economy is being dragged through the dirt, but our high grossing blockbuster hits are still mostly about rich white dudes. Maybe these rich white dudes observe the plight of the poor, but it is still from their vantage point. i.e. The Social Network/Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps/The Dark Knight Rises.)

Surprisingly there’s more films about frustrated-20-somethings in a bad job market from the early 90s. The 90s being the decade where a lot of people were pretty well off. But, there was that recession in the early 90s that influenced music, art and film in a lot of interesting ways.
Two films in particular, Slackerand Reality Bites, came out around the same time to address a youth culture that felt disenfranchised. They both ostensibly sought to delve into the coming-of-age story specific to disillusionment with the American dream. While Slacker is maybe a bit convoluted in its non-narrative narrative, it is far more successful in encapsulating a culture and economic climate that fed into each other. Reality Bites, on the other hand, just sort of bites.

Movie poster for Slacker
Richard Linklater’s Slackerfollows various characters around Austin, Texas. Each person bumps into, or passes another conversation that leads the camera to another story. The characters all seem to share the same sense of detachment from mainstream culture and desire to pontificate in a typical Linklater fashion. There isn’t really an arc to the film, but there is a voice. And, that’s the point. Linklater is trying to capture something while also getting a chance to look at long semi-philosophically titillating tête-à-têtes.

Reality Bitesinstead uses the educated but wandering youth archetype to facilitate an easy-to-consume pop culture-inundated whine-fest where the characters seem a bit more concerned about their love-hate romances than anything else.

When talking about Reality Bites I will be using the abbreviated form of the term “romantic comedy” (i.e. rom-com) as a verb. Here is an example of how I will use this: In Ben Stiller’s directorial debut in the 1994 film, Reality Bites, about 20-somethings trying to get by in a recession-drenched economy, Stiller took what could have been an informative narrative about the emerging 90s youth culture, and instead he went and rom-commed it.

The woefully hip cast of Reality Bites
Reality Bites just about literally fetishizes the economic strife of the young by slapping romantic intrigue on minimum wage and unemployment.

It also seems to miss the mark on what that youth culture was at the time. Did Stiller think grunge meant jerk? Because the male love interest, Troy (Ethan Hawke), is not appealing in any way. He’s a pseudo-intellectual who seems to have plenty of gripes with “the Man,” but nothing much intelligent to say about it. He’s hung up on the female love interest (and yes, that’s how I’m identifying them, since they rarely rise above those archetypes) Lelaina (Winona Ryder), in the most jealous and obnoxious way possible. After he spies Lelaina hooking up with a guy after her date, Troy makes snide comments indicating she’s promiscuous. Lelaina, our primary protagonist, does seem pretty cool sans her narcissistic documentary. But, she’s drawn to the poorly written symbol of her culture, Troy, for inexplicable reasons.

It’s painfully rom-commed. Reality Bites seems so contrived and marketed to a counterculture demographic, but it still relies on lazy plot devices and expects the audience to be intrigued by sexual tension over everything else. Which leaves the audience without much to actually connect with.

These films are both trying to appeal to a specific demographic, but the tone of Reality Bites is one that is perpetuated even while drowning us in unnecessary hormones.