TRIBECA 2019: ‘Reality Bites’ still lands 25 years on

Winona Ryder’s eyes and facial features still flicker erratically from side to side like a pinball machine. Ethan Hawke’s mop is still slicked back and he sits, irreverent and intriguing as always on stage. Ben Stiller gazes down the panel at both of them in awe, as if it was still 1994. We’re here at Tribeca to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of ‘Reality Bites,’ and it’s clear that very little has changed since.

As a film, Reality Bites is refreshing. Maybe more so in retrospect because the film isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t claim to be. Its documentary visuals following a group of twenty-somethings, make it seem like an under-financed student film at times and that’s half the charm of it. In many ways it was ahead of its time in capturing life as it happens, as we do now overzealously with mobile phones. Very little feels orchestrated, the dialogue although sharper then real life tends to be, still feels natural. It picks up on the bite size chunks of reality, by lathering on timely wit, charm and adolescent anarchy.

There’s echoes of John Hughes in the soppier lines, which generally lands with the younger, more hopeful generation. But all is quickly forgiven, as it’s clear that they crafted something out of an acute ear for a very particular point in time in the early nineties. The panel agreed on the delicacy of this specific mindset at the time, retrospectively delighted that they got it right in pinpointing the undercurrent of a generation who would do anything but ‘sell out.’ Ben Stiller recalled how they had first premiered the film at pre-screening shows in UC Berkeley and when the Universal logo appeared on screen, a cacophony of boos erupted. It was a reaction stemming from the audacity that ‘the man’ was trying to preach to their generation.

For Helen Childress, the screenwriter of just 23 at the time, it was her first feature film. From the panel conversation, it’s clear that this break may have come a little early, ‘I thought that’s just what happens when you write a movie: you get a call from Winona and Ben Stiller and Ethan Hawke.’ It launched the famous names on stage, changing the trajectory of Ryder and Hawke’s careers in particular, and granted Stiller a decent directing platform. But the films’ heart and soul is primarily attributed to Childress, who wrote the first draft of this charming film when she was just 19. The moderator subtly pointed out that her IMDB credits are sparse in the years that followed, and in that sense this talented screenwriter seems to have pulled the short straw. It didn’t matter though, the audience were there to celebrate a film that had meant something to them and most screenwriters find difficulty in achieving that at all during their careers.

Beyond the audiences’ reverence for the film, at one point there was that familiar glassy reflection in Hawke’s eyes as he thanked Winona for putting her name to the film, a move that ultimately took it out of production hell. The producers sang from the same hymn sheet, emphasising the make or break reputation that her name and star power carried in the early nineties. Ryder did what most of us do when receiving compliments, shied away from the adulation and maintained that she was most grateful for the opportunity, as it allowed her career to change course too.

The Tribeca Film Festival is renowned for its anniversary screenings, an annual tradition which seeks to honour particular films that all have something in common: they all meant something to an audience. Every year, Tribeca looks at the calendar year and selects anniversary screenings for films that survived beyond the ending credits, films that exist in our minds as something bigger and more profound, films that made it into our consciousness and managed to stay there.

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