Directed by Richard Linklater
Everyone knows Dazed and Confused, though I’m sure some people get it confused with Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). What I think is so incredible about Dazed and Confused is how timeless it feels and how drenched in the 70s it seems. I think it’s easy to forget that this movie was made in the 90s. Linklater recently made another film, Everybody Wants Some!! (2015) that was set in 1980, and I love that film, so after watching Dazed and Confused, I began to wonder if it could ever hold up as well as that one did.
The movies that feel the most representative of a culture or a time period or era, often feel like they were made in that era. When people talk about the best high school films of all time, Fast Times and Dazed are on there, as well as probably Superbad and Grease and how could I forget American Graffiti?
Now, maybe the common denominator between those is simply that they stood up well over time and during multiple viewings. American Graffiti, like Dazed, was made almost 20 years after it was set (in the 50s). Same thing with Grease actually.
My original hypothesis (as of 2 minutes ago) was that the most timeless of these kinds of films were made in the same era they depict onscreen, like Fast Times and Superbad, but between American Graffiti, Grease and Dazed and Confused, it seems as though that theory might need to be put to rest.
Either way, there is a timeless quality to this film, one that Linklater doesn’t quite achieve in Everybody Wants Some!! even though it’s set in a similar time period and has great costume design, set decoration and an awesome soundtrack. I don’t need to dig into that film as I’ve already written about it recently, but that movie seems to be from the perspective of someone experiencing some sharp nostalgia. That doesn’t make it better or worse, just a little more perfect.
So anyways, Dazed and Confused. There is certainly some nostalgia here, but Linklater’s perspective (he was around 32/33 when he made this) feels like that of someone who isn’t far removed from this lifestyle. The movie never ridicules these characters or even celebrates them too much. Instead it’s like the movie just laughs at their hijinks and shakes its head at their mistakes that they’re too young to notice.
Last comparison to Everybody Wants Some!!: In that 2015 film, Linklater seemed to be smiling at everyone in the story. No matter who they were or what they did, they were all going to turn out all right because that’s how life works. Everything comes to pass. It’s the vantage point of an older man who knows the real problems in life will come later, when these characters grow up. You might say that Linklater, in his mid 50s when he made the film, overlooked some of the more messy parts of that time in your life.
But with Dazed and Confused, (now I can actually focus on this film) a bunch of the characters do silly or dumb things, and there isn’t always the clear indication that they’ll be okay. When Randy “Pink” Floyd, (Jason London) the high school quarterback, crumples up the pledge his coach wanted the team to sign and threw it in his face, well we probably think he’s an idiot. That might be enough to get him kicked off the team, and for what? So he can party and not lie about it?
The coach urges his entire team to sign this document, based on the honor system, that says each student will not do drugs or really do anything dumb. Randy’s friends and teammates tell him to just sign the damn paper because what does it matter anyway? They’re all going to still smoke weed and drink and chase girls. There are some systems of authority you just have to give into, particularly when you’re under 18 as almost all these characters are.
But Randy stubbornly refuses, and he’s stupid for doing so. This probably won’t send him down some horrible path to addiction and a life of poverty, but he’s old enough to know better, and we’re not told that things will explicitly work out. Then again we’re not told it won’t work out because the film ends with Randy in a car with three other people, smoking weed, cruising down the highway and listening to contemporary rock, having the time of their lives or, as Matthew McConaughey’s character Wooderson says, they’re just “Livin, L.I.V.I.N. livin.”
The film celebrates the moment, as many of Linklater’s films have done since. Dazed and Confused was his follow up to 1991’s Slacker, a cult favorite and one of my personal favorites, at least after a second viewing.
This film takes place over the course of a single night, and the condensed story offers enough time for us to meet a wide variety of characters. The story takes place on the last day of school in Austin, Texas, and we are introduced to characters just trying to have a good time as they deal with various systems of authority that do or don’t matter, at least in time.
The incoming freshman, led by Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), have to face the wrath of the seniors who carry out a tradition of spanking the youngsters with paddles, making sure they know they’re at the bottom of the high school food chain. The girls have their own form of hazing, in which the senior cheerleaders subject the freshman cheerleaders to a degrading ritual that involves being covered with ketchup, mustard, and flour before being forced to ‘propose’ to one of the older boys that watches the whole thing unfold.
The seniors are quick to point out that there is no malicious intent here. Randy gives Mitch a ride home and explains how this means he’s part of the group now. He goes on to tell him about the seniors in his day were very harsh, and that Mitch should put some ice on the pain and then come out with them that night.
On the girls’ side, the freshman Sabrina (Christin Hinojosa) is comforted by Mitch’s older sister, Jodi (Michelle Burke), and similar invited out with them that night.
Both freshmen are absorbed into the social circles of high school pretty quickly. That night involves people going to a burger joint, a pool hall, buying alcohol and ultimately coming together for a party in the woods once the original party went south when Kevin Pickford’s parents decided not to leave town for the night.
There’s this whole ecosystem here, and it’s really great to watch and even better to think about after the movie is over. I don’t know how Linklater so effectively conveys the balance of power in the film as well as the multitude of roles each character plays. By that I mean that no one is just one thing. Adam Goldberg’s Mike is a little neurotic and prone to analyze everything before doing anything. For a lot of the film he’s in the backseat of a car with two of his friends. They were going to play board games that night but decided to go to the party instead. When the party is cancelled, they drive around going nowhere, and they discuss why they should want to go anywhere. It’s one of several conversations among the characters about life, at least on some level.
Mike positions himself as outside of the large group. He is more likely to mock the people we watch onscreen than join them. At the woods party, he makes a sarcastic remark about some guys “smoking reefer,” loud enough to be heard but quiet enough to deny he said anything once confronted. Mike quickly recoils into himself, trying to save his skin like a turtle retreating into his shell. After the slight altercation, Mike is pissed and decides to fight the man back. He gets himself into a brawl, and after it’s over he reflects on the fight, realizing it doesn’t matter if he won or lost because when Ernest Hemingway got into a brawl, it was about the fight and not the outcome.
I suppose, though, that’s not a case of playing multiple roles so much as a character experiencing an arc and character growth. Randy might be a better example. He’s considered a good kid. He is, after all, the star quarterback of the football team heading into next season. When Mitch’s baseball game that night ends, Randy leaves the stands with an older couple. The man tells Randy how excited he is for him and the team next year, and Randy plays the good kid role, thanking the man for his words and bidding them adieu.
Then Randy plays the role of senior jock, taking part in the spanking hazing ritual perpetuated most aggressively by a senior named O’Bannion (Ben Affleck). When that’s over, Randy gives Mitch a ride home and acts like the Obi Wan Kenobi to Mitch’s Luke Skywalker.
When they’re out at the party, Randy makes out with Mitch’s older sister and ignores the fact that he has a girlfriend, even when confronted with the information by Jodi herself. Finally, we see Randy get pissed with his coach, rather unjustly, and flick the crumpled up paper pledge in his face. He’s kind of a dick in this moment, actually he’s just an asshole, and we end with Randy is getting high in the car with Wooderson, a ‘burnout’ who’s much too old to hang out with high school kids and who earlier was happy to say he was getting his third wind just as the sun came up.
So there are several characters that Randy plays across the night. Randy, and we, are not just one person. We play these roles depending on the situation and who we’re surrounded by. The reasons we act differently are very human. They might be pride, lust, peer-pressure or anger or any number of things.
So this film feels messy and real. It’s also heartwarming as we see some of the more sensitive kids, like Mitch or Sabrina and her new beau Tony (Anthony Rapp), find some joy over the course of the night.
By focusing on this small ecosystem on this single night, Linklater seems to be getting hyper specific, showing how those people live. But in that specificity, he points out the universal, saying this is how we live. There are enough characters in this story for you to find one you identify with, even if it’s just one aspect of a particular character.
I recognized part of myself in Randy, and then not long after I found myself unsettled by his behavior. I felt like I didn’t even know the character near the end of the film. But that’s only because I didn’t agree with his choices, and that’s me bringing my perspective (and age to a degree) into the story.
The title, Dazed and Confused, tells you all you need to know. Randy doesn’t have the answers, even if he thinks he does. None of the characters know anything. Some are willing to say that (Mike, Tony and Cynthia for example), and even though they may come to a conclusion that all that matters is the moment, you know they might think the exact opposite the next day, or in a year or in ten years from that moment. There are no conclusions in this movie. We aren’t even supposed to have a conclusive opinion on these characters or life itself.
All we’re doing, and all they’re doing is trying to figure it out, and that effort is worth a celebration. Linklater finds a way to empathize with these unique, wacky, stubborn, naive, ignorant, aggressive, introspective, short-sighted characters rather than satirize them. Their shortcomings and mistakes are celebrated because they’re real. Another film, hell another director, might think first to parody this version of life, particularly with the added benefit of simply being older and knowing that life goes on.
It’s easy to look back and say “that never mattered,” because the severity of your problems feels stronger as you get older, but the truth is that it did matter, it mattered very much. Richard Linklater checks in with these characters and this time of life (and probably himself too) and almost encourages the mistakes, the theorizing, the fighting, the kissing, the drinking, the smoking and the late nights. He knows that this point in your life mattered.
Randy’s resistance to his coach’s pledge is so petty on some level, as I’ve apparently decided already, but maybe it’s more important that he stands up for what he believes in, even if what he believes in is a little naive and misguided.
With Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater emphasizes the core emotions and instincts that get us into trouble or make us feel down but that ultimately unite us and make us human.