The “Reality Bites” couple that should have been

In a dream world where we get the movie endings we crave, Janeane Garofalo and Winona Ryder’s characters in Reality Bites are the filet mignons of best friends I would have died to see get it on. Garofalo plays Vickie Miner who lives with Ryder’s character, Lelaina Pierce. They’ve just graduated from college and the world is their oyster—or maybe a cheaper shellfish. We meet Vickie in bed; a poster reads “Bitch, bitch, bitch!” on her wall. She’s keeping a diary record of each guy she’s done it with (66 and counting.) Lelaina, graduating valedictorian, is making a documentary and has two male suitors that want a piece of her pie. In the winter of this discontent, there are two dark-haired wonder women who can smoke a cigarette with the vigor of Courtney Love and give Sapphic meaning to Squeeze’s “Tempted By the Fruit of Another.”

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Vickie is a firm believer in equal rights. She feels “at least two women” should be in the Supreme Court—that’s super important, I mean, it is 1994. I like where her mind’s at. Now that she’s newly crowned manager of the Gap, not only can she fold a cable-knit sweater to perfection, she also knows how to smooth talk to the lady customers. “Roll ‘em right up. Feels liberating, right?” Jean-on-jean is totally liberating. And if Janeane Garofalo tells you rolled-sleeves are liberating, you give it a strong go, and you enjoy it. Also, as a bonus, Vickie sports a truly amazing pair of round purple sunglasses and green platform heels that even Jenny McCarthy would throw a jealous fit over. She may not have her shit together, but isn’t that what makes her and Lelaina such besties?

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Lelaina has it all (right?): I’ve already mentioned she was her class’s valedictorian, and the documentary she’s making is about her friends. These friends kind of take her film as a big joke and don’t get the point at all, but it’s solid stuff, and if Good Morning Grant, her current eye-rolling gig, doesn’t want to give her stuff a chance, then it’s damn time she takes a stand. Lelaina is fired, retreats to her shared apartment, the “maxi pad,” and Vickie offers an instant-job for Lelaina at the Gap. I mean, duh! She’s their knitted, ribbed, full-on manager now. Lelaina scoffs at the idea, and then they have their first, real lesbian fight. Doors slam.

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Along the way, Lelaina starts dating macho chump Michael (Ben Stiller) who works at this uber-‘90s network called “In Your Face.” He agrees to take on Lelaina’s documentary but turns it into a cheesy Real World-type thing that completely takes the artistic edge off what Lelaina had in mind. Realizing she’s been duped, she sort of falls into the arms of Troy (Ethan Hawke), who’s always had a secret hankering for her, but he’s a total mess and can’t commit to a relationship. After all, he is a starving musician with a bunch of angst. So he’s going to sing a really nasty song about it at a dive bar.

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So in between all this job-loss, men-sucking, general 20something angst, Lelaina basically falls of the rails and becomes a couch potato. Vickie throws out a Sylvia Plath reference and tells her to get it together. (Plath should have totally been a lez, too.) Then the two girls go to lunch where they have their infamous “Do you ever wish you were a lesbian?” chat. Vickie is all for it. She’s done with men. She believes it would be so much easier. (Oh, Vickie!) Lelaina fears that if she went through with “it” she might laugh. (I think she’s talking about sexy stuff.) With just a little more coaxing, Vickie could have probably turned Lelaina by the time the check arrived.

What’s bitterly hilarious but heartbreaking about this scene is perhaps Vickie’s monologue about her fear of contracting AIDS. She compares herself to a new character on Melrose Place who teaches everyone in the building that it’s OK to come near her. And when her fictional character dies, she dreads what her funeral would look like—an ad out of Contempo Casuals, no doubt. Reality Bites is about fresh-faced adults learning bit by bit that their realities—what they conceive to be their realities—are not even close to real. They have wants, needs, desires, fears, dreams and hopes, but they’re stuck in this weird, programmed 1994 post-graduate mentality, looking for the next plateau. And in the echoing words of Kurt Cobain via the Meat Puppets, “There’s nothing on top but a bucket and a mop…”

Reality Bites was Ben Stiller’s directorial debut as a 28-year-old. He allegedly fired Garofalo from the film for a sec for her inability to make rehearsals, but Ryder stepped in to make sure she came back. It was Ryder who originally vibed with Garofalo pre-film and wanted her above others for the part. Off-screen chemistry, anyone?

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In an alternative ending, these two brunettes should have made peace with what was inevitable—they had a sassy, untapped attraction for one another amid their crass romantic trysts with men. They shared disdain. They understood the value of each other’s wit. Beyond the detail that they simply look hot next to each other, there’s a supreme Thelma & Louise car-flying-off-the-cliff fatality to their togetherness. Guns blazing, eyes probing, laughs cackling—Janeane Garofalo and Winona Ryder were two unrequited femme-fetales who took a big chomp out of the apple out of reality. It makes me want to bop around to “My Sharona.”

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