This week marks the 20th anniversary of the theatrical release of Reality Bites, Ben Stiller’s Gen-X rom-com about four recent college graduates in Houston. Turns out the 1994 movie was prescient about many things, including the rise of reality television and the fall of the post-collegiate job market. But thanks to Janeane Garofalo’s spot-on performance as Vickie Miner, it also gave us the prototypical example of that still-thriving movie staple: the quirky best female friend.
What sets Vickie apart from so many similar characters that have followed is how substantive the character is despite her limited screen time. During the movie, Vickie not only helps her aspiring documentarian pal Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder) navigate between grungy Hey, That’s My Bike front man Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke) and yuppie TV exec Michael Grates (Stiller), but also earns a big promotion at the Gap, confronts the possibility that she may have contracted HIV, and lends support to her friend Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn) when he decides to come out. As any movie best friend must be, she is quirky and sassy, but she’s not inexplicably kooky to the point of being unhinged, like, say, Zooey Deschanel in Failure to Launch. She’s also no doormat (sigh, Ginnifer Goodwin in anything); she can stick up for herself and snap the female lead out of her self-absorption without resorting to violence, à la the slap Judy Greer gives to Katherine Heigl in 27 Dresses, although it’s hard to blame anyone for doing that. In other words, we think that Vickie Miner is the paragon of “alternative” film friendship, and we would love to see more characters like her in our moviegoing lives. Let’s celebrate two decades of Vickie with a rundown of eight reasons she’s still the ultimate movie best friend.
1. She’s got style. The vintage dresses, the oversize sunglasses, the Bettie Page bangs — Vickie was ahead of her time, paradoxically, by being about 20 years behind the times. The pièce de résistance to any Vickie Miner ensemble is, of course, her Charlie’s Angels lunch box.
2. She knows pop culture. Of course, the lunch box is just the tip of the iceberg. Posters of Love Story, Saturday Night Fever, Boston, and Gorbachev line the walls of her room. When we first meet her early in the film, she quotes the once-ubiquitous and ubiquitously mocked Massengill commercials (“Sometimes I get that not-so-fresh feeling“), and then drunkenly sings “Conjunction Junction” with her friends after graduation, thus confirming that college has nothing on Schoolhouse Rock.
3. She holds her own with the guys. Intergender bonding throughout the movie is one of its high points and makes the boys-versus-girls structure common to the rom-com genre seem like a pox by comparison. There are brilliant exceptions, such as Lloyd Dobler’s female best friends in Say Anything… (cue Lily Taylor singing “That’ll Never Be Me”), but it’s always refreshing to see how easily Vickie shifts from hanging out with Troy and Sammy to palling around with Lelaina. To wit: the Good Times drinking game, where Vickie proves to be as up on the 1970s sitcom as her proto-hipster male peers.
4. She has debt and pays bills! How frequently have female rom-com characters from the last 20 years actually had to worry about money? Let alone unleash now-obsolete lines about their poverty as quotable as this one: “My favorite part about graduating now will be dodging my student loan officer for the rest of my life. He will be in cahoots with the Columbia Record and Tape Company guy … been after my ass for years.” And how does she pay the bills, you ask? While Troy is busy getting fired from the newsstand for daring to ask if employee snacks are subsidized and Lelaina is busy getting fired for making her boss look like a pedophile on air, Vickie is climbing the retail ladder as a Gap clothing-store employee. Refreshingly, she seems to be proud of how good she is at the job, but in a straightforward, non-neurotic kind of way (like Scarlett Johansson’s character a few years later in Ghost World). And can you blame her? Just look at how well she folds that sweater!
5. She’s not afraid to start an impromptu dance party. Sure, sure, we all remember the Reality Bites gang of four rocking out to the Knack’s “My Sharona” at the gas station and, yes, that was totally Vickie’s doing. But for our money, the gas station scene takes a back seat (pun intended!) to an earlier dance-y moment, when Vickie and Lelaina are riding around in a car singing to “Tempted.” Nothing says 1994 like Janeane Garofalo churning the butter.
6. She calls bullshit on the leading lady. We’re not talking about some Mean Girls or Bride Wars catfight over dumb things like boys or wedding venues. No, Lelaina and Vickie are grown-ups, or at least trying to be, which means they spar verbally and over important real-world things, such as Lelaina’s professional idealism/superiority complex. Admittedly, when she refers to the $5-per-hour gig that Leilana “I’m not gonna work at the Gap, for Christ’s sake” Pierce cruelly rebuffs as “a pretty good opportunity,” Vickie is probably overselling it. But in literally the very next scene, Troy and Lelaina talk about how all they need is “you and me and five bucks,” so what do we know? Whatever — Vickie responds in the precise way that anyone would: with vicious sarcasm (“Oh, no. I’m so sorry. Oh, how stupid of me to try to drag you down to my level.”) followed by stomping off to her room to stew to “Disco Inferno.”
7. She has a believable love life of her own. It may not seem “romantic” or “comedic” in any conventional way, but that’s what makes her dating travails so significant. Vickie actually gets to be a sexual being with desires and hang-ups and even potential health crises. A memorable early scene finds her struggling to remember the name of a faceless suitor wearing a flannel shirt, silver rings, and what can only be described as Dickies pants, who has just left her room; turns out he — “Rick?”— is No. 66 on her list of conquests.
Like all of her transgressive ’90s peers, Vickie doesn’t want to be like her parents, which in her case means she doesn’t want to get old with some guy and go to the bathroom with the door open. Nope, she wants first kisses and passion the whole way through. As another of her many beaux (played by Soul Asylum front man and Winona Ryder’s then-boyfriend Dave Pirner) points out, “It’s better than having to kiss your husband’s ass all the time.” But all those first kisses and passionate encounters with “Rick?” et al. can be a bit risky. Reality can bite, even for a quirky best friend. Vickie deals with getting a free-clinic AIDS test (“the rite of passage for our generation”), as one would expect, with totally perverse humor. But she also gets to have and articulate profound feelings of existential loneliness and fear. Of course, even while confronting the void, she cannot help but be hilarious, e.g., when she says she feels like a character on Melrose Place and imagines everybody in the building coming to her funeral in “halter tops and chokers” — a deeply amusing image because, let’s be honest, that’s a lot of activity in the neck area. Fortunately, however, we are spared having to confront any such fashion mis-statement because her test comes back, as she so pricelessly puts it, “negatory.”
8. She’s not only there to prop up the main character. Yes, Vickie serves a crucial function for Lelaina and the movie’s main romance plot: helping Lainie decipher what it means when Michael asks her out for coffee and dropping hard truths like “sex is the quickest way to ruin a friendship” after Lainie and Troy sleep together. But true Reality Bites fans know that the real (nonsexual) love story here is between Vickie and Sammy. She’s not above teasing him, as early as the opening credits, with “I’m gonna take Sam against his will and straighten him out, because I truly believe that if we can get two women on the Supreme Court, we can get at least one on you, Sam” but she is also there to help Sammy prepare to come out to his mom. Their “pre-enactment” is not only totally sweet, but also yields her most classic, quotable line: “Oh, PFLAG, I’m beginning to like the sound of that.”
When last we see Vickie and Sammy, they are at the club where he works, laughing and having fun at the bar as Troy leaps off the stage and runs after Lainie in the middle of an embittered and embarrassing rendition of “Add It Up.” It is an amazing moment — and not just because Troy is surprisingly nimble for someone who smokes and couches that much. It is as if Vickie and Sammy, having realized what a mess the romantic leads have made and how officially overwrought the movie has become, have finally opted just to ride their own melts.