'Reality Bites'

Duane Byrge

PARK CITY, Utah - The 1960s graduates in producer Michael Shamberg's ''The Big Chill'' found it was ''cold out there'' in the real world, while the 1990s graduates in ''Reality Bites'' (produced by Danny DeVito and Shamberg) find it's a void out there.

Centering on four twentysomething roommates suffering post-graduation uncertainty, 1994-style, ''Reality Bites'' should be a big commercial winner for Universal. The Jersey Films production premiered to an enthusiastic reception Friday night here at the Sundance Film Festival.

College valedictorian Lelaina (Winona Ryder) finds that being head of her class means going straight to the bottom of the heap in real life. Slogging away as an intern-level assistant on a dopey morning TV show, Lelaina finds her only personal outlet is in the videos she shoots of her closest friends - ''reality bites,'' as she calls them.

The bites mirror their frustrations and uncertainties: For roommate Gap worker Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), it's romantic self-esteem problems exacerbated by the malaise of toiling for a chain store; for Troy (Ethan Hawke), it's the fear of committing to anything or anyone for fear of failure; and for Sammy (Steve Zahn), it's the trauma of admitting his sexuality. Like most 22-to-23-year-olds, they haven't got a toehold on anything and the only certainties they find are in the old, consoling TV shows of their youth - namely, ''The Brady Bunch.'' Alas, small comfort - the real-life head of that snug household died of AIDS.

Alternately downbeat and chipper, ''Reality Bites'' is an appealing narrative document of twentysomething fear. Helen Childress' screenplay smartly intertwines a representative set of generational impediments, professional and personal, that today's college grads face.

Ben Stiller's direction, while respectful of the gnawing dilemmas each character encounters, is nevertheless appropriately spunky, reflective of the resilient energies of the characters' age group.

As the prickly and talented Lelaina, Ryder embodies the energetic but conflicted exuberance of a young woman who frantically seeks to define herself.

Hawke is terrific as the gifted poet-singer whose own abilities frighten him, wallowing in a constant state of avoidance. Garofalo is well-cast as the 1970s clinging roomie, while Stiller nicely reeks of unexamined conformity in his role as aspiring Yuppie.

Tech credits are tops, with a particular nod to music supervisor Karyn Rachtman for the telling soundtrack selections, best represented by the Talking Heads' ''Road to Nowhere.''