It’s difficult to imagine a better film about the pent-up restlessness and aimless recreation of suburban teendom than Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. Made during a time when Linklater was seemingly incapable of churning out anything less than effortless entertainments that doubled as poetic works of art, and set in a time (the 1970’s) that the baby boomer Linklater knows well, the film lovingly reflects the era without falling into nostalgia traps. Instead of romanticizing a sense of limitless possibilities and never-ending fun, Linklater seems determined to depict how little there was to do, how so much of the time spent any given day was spent thinking about what could be happening. Wisely, that’s what the film posits about every decade; people are so often thinking about the could-have-been’s, would-have-been’s, and should-be’s that they neglect the joys that the present can offer. But this seemingly didactic message is merely a delicate subtext flowing beneath the surface of a film whose modest goal is to simply capture the essence of a particular time and attitude and thus discover something essential about growing up in any place at any time.
Like many of Linklater’s early films, Dazed and Confused occurs on an unobstructed linear timeline over the course of one day and is a marvel of economy and pacing. Plotwise, the film’s connective tissue is varsity quarterback Randall “Pink” Floyd’s (Jason London) mental wrestling with an authoritative document passed down from high school coaches mandating chastity from drugs and alcohol during both the upcoming offseason and season. For Pink and his best friends, scribbling a signature means not only sacrificing freedom but also what constitutes the entire lifeblood of high school and youth for them: drinking, smoking and hanging out with nothing to do but pass the time blasting Aerosmith and Alice Cooper. This utter lack of productivity, the value of which is so impossible to explain in words but is so evocatively reproduced by Linklater, is the bread and butter of the high school years.
It permeates not only the typically party-hardy jocks – Fred O’Bannion (Ben Affleck), Don Dawson (Sasha Jenson), Melvin Spivey (Jason O. Smith) and Benny O’Donnell (Cole Hauser) – but also:
1. The introspective wannabe intellectuals who over-analyze their every move – Mike Newhouse (Adam Goldberg), Tony Olson (Anthony Rapp), and Cynthia Dunn (Marissa Ribisi).
2. The potheads and music junkies who are willing to do anything as long as weed is present – Ron Slater (Rory Cochrane) and Kevin Pickford (Shawn Andrews).
3. And the naive incoming freshmen who spend their time imagining what the high school experience might be like and mythologizing the various popular seniors – Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), Sabrina David (Christin Hinojosa), Carl Burnett (Esteban Powell), Tommy Houston (Mark Vandermeulen), and John Hirschfelder (Jeremy Fox).
All these individuals and many more congregate on the final day of school in May of 1976 and the subsequent morning to celebrate their mutual hit-or-miss aimlessness, driving around their small Texas town looking for something to do until finally, out of this nothingness, a “beer bust” is created by the moontower on the outskirts of town. Before this point, everyone partitions their time between a burger joint and a pool hall, going back and forth with reckless abandon as mid-70’s rock hits blaze from the speakers of cars and countless beers get swigged in backseats.
There’s something ritualistic about the way Linklater films the driving sequences from a head-on view (the same angle that would be employed as homage in That 70’s Show), as if the passengers are in the aisles of church and the road is their religious rite of passage. Beyond that, Linklater’s use of driving as a structural element in itself charges the film with relentless movement; if the activity in one car begins to grow tiresome (and it never does), cross-cut to another to see what else is going on. In its middle stage the film becomes a riotous collage of different characters, behaviors, and moods set against different moving backdrops. The unspoken punchline is that all this momentum is actually leading nowhere, only the same rounds of tomfoolery as usual.
Linklater is quick to establish the 70’s as anything but idyllic and faultless. The entire first act revolves around the freshman “initiation procedures”, a series of good-natured but mostly malicious lashings and tasks handed down by the overenthusiastic seniors. This would succinctly be deemed “hazing” nowadays, but in Dazed and Confused’s world it’s an orientation that is allowed or at the very least turned a blind eye towards by school authority figures and parents (the one exception being Tommy’s mother, who pulls a rifle on O’Bannion as he’s preparing his session of ass-whipping in her front yard). While the football players run off with their thick wooden bats, the head cheerleaders – Darla Marks (Parker Posey), Jodi Kramer (Michelle Burke), Simone Kerr (Joey Lauren Adams) and Shavonne Wright (Deena Martin) – round up the freshman girls to bark orders, dump assorted condiments on them, and force them to make marriage requests to the male seniors watching on the sidelines.
Curiously, the freshman seem to feel they deserve it, and other times they embrace it as a door to popularity and maturity. Linklater never comes right out and denounces the characters for it, but there are certain moments when he deftly draws attention to the perverse cruelty of it all, such as when he cuts away to Mike and Tony discussing the ridiculousness of the proceedings from the parking lot, or when the disconcertingly overeager O’Bannion (who allegedly failed senior year on purpose to get another shot at the incoming freshman) swings at Mitch’s behind repeatedly in slow motion, which manages to heighten the viciousness, not to mention the implicit sadism, of the act.
For the most part, however, the film chugs along in an upbeat manner, its anthemic soundtrack and Linklater’s popping color scheme contributing a patina of stylishness and energy. And of course the guilty pay for their actions (O’Bannion finds himself dripping with white paint after being set up by the freshman boys and is never again seen in the film after a ferocious outburst) and the innocent get rewarded (Mitch and Sabrina both find love interests by the end of a long, eye-opening and booze-swilling night), a system whose determinism is undercut by the sheer hilarity and spontaneity of the night.
Other characters straddle the line between reprehensible and benevolent, such as Pink and Jodi, who both participate in the procedures but later become active supporters of the freshman, inviting them out for the night as if drinking beer, breaking mailboxes and driving aimlessly is some noble and substantial route to self-actualization. So often Linklater uses the pumped-up soundtrack – a smorgasbord of critically maligned and supposedly “trashy” rock-and-roll smash hits – to raise an emotional tension amongst the elements: the hopeful “School’s Out For Summer” scores the frantic escape of the freshman from the seniors, the anticipatory “Low Rider” bellows as the characters ride around in dejection after Pickford’s big party is canceled, and, in the final shot, “Slow Ride” urges the characters to “take it easy!” when really they should be doing anything but.
That the Criterion booklet provides a Linklater-penned “yearbook” section with in-depth descriptions of each characters’ personal quirks and aspirations suggests that Linklater so fastidiously thought out his characters that any hour-and-a-half attempt to fully flesh them all out was bound to fail on some level. Yet what’s so surprising about Dazed and Confused is that so few individuals in its massive ensemble feel exclusively like high school types (one of the few exceptions being Slater, a quintessential stoner so hysterically exaggerated that his spaced-out asides manage to move beyond the stereotypical and into the mythic). There’s a generous attempt here to not only imbue each character with multiple and seemingly clashing sensibilities (Pink’s simultaneous jock-isms and stoner-isms, Mike’s longing for “visceral experience” in spite of his talky persona) but also to prove that the various cliques of public schooling can coexist harmoniously.
Hell, there’s even two vagabond townies – the creepily suave David Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey) and the tough greaser Clint Bruno (Nicky Katt) – who blend right in with their younger high school acquaintances. McConaughey’s so good in what is his first and best role that it seems as if the part, an organic mixture of feel-good ethos and indiscriminate philandering, was written expressly for him. Such is the case with most of the film’s best performers, who sink right into their roles likely with firsthand experience and contrast sharply against the lesser abilities of some of the younger actors (Wiggins, Hinojosa and Powell especially).
The beer bust is the orgiastic meeting place of all these superficially disparate individuals who are really in search of the same things (beer, weed and companionship), and it provides the fittingly explosive backdrop for the film’s final act. Linklater sticks to the same method of balancing several mini-narratives at once by intercutting among the various gatherings at the party just as he did between cars earlier in the film. The social subtext is ever-present: the appearance of activity and momentum disguises the basic purposelessness of the endeavor. But what’s so fascinating about Dazed and Confused is that it argues for the lack of purpose as a purpose in itself, the vessel through which Pink eventually rebels against the stuffy “Neo-McCarthyism” of the school’s leaders and the guise under which Mitch is able to enter high school with a veneer of hipness. Linklater does not arrive at this juncture through directorial insistence but rather by discovering it spontaneously in mid-air. Dazed and Confused’s ultimate achievement is crystallizing the feeling of throwing caution to the wind and indulging in all luxuries, caring little for the inevitable explosion of future repercussions.