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Reality Bites: The Movies That Influence A Generation

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There’s no question that the industry has changed a lot over the years, and the theater goers’ experience has shifted the most dramatically.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that people go to the movie theater to be immersed into a film, and have a collective experience. That is actually why they say that thrillers and horror films still do so well at the box office. People like to go and be scared together. I recently experienced a different kind of communal movie-going experience; Cinespia. If you haven’t been, it’s a staple Los Angeles summer experience. I had been to other outdoor films around LA, but never experienced a movie among the towering tombstones at Hollywood Forever cemetery.

I attended this movie-going experience with a group of some of my badass lady friends. As I looked around, I realized that many other women had the same idea. I was surrounded by women in their twenties and thirties and in fact, I ended up running into other friends who were also there with groups of women.  What were we all gathered to see? Reality Bites, the 1994 film starring Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke directed by Ben Stiller, about Lelaina (Winona Ryder) filming a documentary about herself and friends as they try to figure out their lives and loves post college. She develops a very intense love-hate relationship with Troy Dyer, and their somewhat toxic relationship is a main through line in the film. I had never seen this film before, and my experience watching this movie at Cinespia, surrounded by the women of today, was an enlightening experience.

Just a little bit of backstory; I grew up watching mostly older, classic films. Name a film from the 40s through the 60s and it is very likely I have seen it but any movie from the 80s 90s and early 2000‘s and it’s very possible I missed it. Because of this, I was recently hanging out with a friend who was shocked that I had never seen this culturally important film. After seeing it, I can totally understand what she meant. This film is very clearly a product of the 90s, from the hair and costume design to the stereotypical trope of a bad boy and the girl who’s into him. But, more importantly, I saw why this film helped shape a generation.

When I talked to my friend about the importance of this film, she discussed how much this film influenced her early relationships and dating behavior. “Every guy I dated early on was a version of Troy Dyer,” she stated. I personally was more obsessed with the Disney princess of relationships, but I still grew up clinging to the allure of a theoretical bad-boy who would see my inner soul, and help me escape my mundane world.

I know, I know, this is a lot of psychological and theoretical BS. What does this have to do with filmmaking? Here’s the thing. As I watched this film surrounded by my group of badass ladies, Troy and his allure became a permanent thing of the past. His bad boy attractiveness was as dead as the tombstones around me, which was very clear in the reaction to his character by the moviegoers around me. Instead of the women around me being wooed by Troy, whenever he showed up onscreen people would boo. Additionally, whenever Lelaina would rebuke his advances, everyone in the audience would applaud and yell “get it girl” at the screen. It was one of the most engaged and communal movie experiences I had ever had.

And here’s what’s so interesting, this film is still a cult classic even though it’s very clearly sharing a message that no longer resonates in society. This film is just as important today as it was when it came out 25 years ago. The difference? Now, instead of everyone wanting to be with a Troy Dyer, we are becoming more aware of the kinds of relationships we want to steer clear of.  That could just be from a difference in age and the wisdom that comes with age, but I would argue that it goes much deeper.  The media we consume truly influences us. When bad boys are lauded on screen, we consciously or subconsciously choose to be with one. When the culture changes and women are encouraged to stand in their power and gain that independence within themselves, that Troy appeal fades away.

I am so glad I attended Cinespia that evening. Not just for an evening with my girlfriends experiencing a cult classic, but because it gave me even more belief that things are changing. As media consumers and also media creators, we can and are, changing the narrative.

Deborah Lee Smith

About Deborah Lee Smith

Deborah Lee Smith is an award-winning actor, producer, and founder of “More Than You See”, a non profit organization dedicated to sharing stories and resources surrounding the daily struggles of mental health. Recent projects include “Here Awhile” starring Anna Camp (Pitch Perfect), and “Last Three Days” starring Robert Palmer Watkins (General Hospital). Deborah is also a regular contributing staff writer for the entertainment website “Ms. In The Biz”.