- Director: Richard Linklater
- Writer: Richard Linklater
- Starring: Jason London, Wiley Wiggins, Sasha Jenson, Michelle Burke, Christine Harnos, Rory Cochrane, Ben Affleck, Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, Marissa Ribisi, Matthew McConaughey, Shawn Andrews, Cole Hauser, Milla Jovovich, Joey Lauren Adams, Christin Hinojosa, and Parker Posey
- Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV
We have covered a handful of ensemble, hangout-y movies about teenagers in this space, but for all their seemingly low stakes, most of these movies are actually pretty dramatic. Here’s some spoilers for you: American Graffiti ends in a massive car crash, Fast Times at Ridgemont High has people losing their virginity and getting abortions, and one of the leads in Cooley High actually does die at the end. Dazed and Confused has a jukebox period soundtrack (honestly my favorite of those we’ve featured so far), and features plenty of movie stars before they became super famous, like those other movies, but resolutely lacks any stakes whatsoever. There are some characters, they hang out over the course of one afternoon and evening, some of them kiss each other, some of them smoke pot together, one guy throws a piece of paper at his football coach, and Ben Affleck gets a bunch of paint dropped on his head. They’re all gonna be OK, but not because of anything that happened or didn’t happen on this one night in 1976. It is the high school hang out comedy as directed by Robert Altman.
The actual director of this movie is Richard Linklater, who has spent his career gaining critical praise while resisting traditional narrative cliches. Just as in many of those other movies we mentioned, Dazed and Confused is set in the teen years of its own director. Linklater grew up in 1970s Austin, Texas, and by great coincidence this movie is set on the last day of school, 1976, in Austin, Texas. It follows a whole fleet of characters as they generally hang out, get drunk and high, and worry about whether they’re going to go to a party, while some very obvious 70s rock songs play on the soundtrack. When the last bell of school year rings and the kids run out the doors, flinging their papers into the air, “School’s Out for Summer” literally plays on the soundtrack.
The characters we think are separate gradually drift into each other’s orbits over the course of the evening. A few times, two characters we didn’t even realize knew each other will suddenly meet, kiss, and we realize that they’re romantically involved, despite the fact that they didn’t meet for the first hour of the movie. Very few of the characters have what I would call actual arcs. Linklater shot a lot of things, and kept what he thought worked. He later reported that he at one point had a 2 hour and 45 minute cut entirely of scenes he liked, and then had to cut another hour or so out of the movie before he could release it.
The movie has several different “storylines,” many of which are either dropped or picked up over the course of the movie. There is a surprisingly nuanced depiction of an annual hazing ritual in which new Seniors annually attack new Freshmen, mostly, it seems, because they were attacked when they were Freshmen. Football team quarterback “Pink” Floyd (Jason London) isn’t sure whether he should sign a written “pledge” not to do drugs from his Coach. Incoming Freshman Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) wants to avoid getting his butt kicked and maybe get some girls. Stoner “Slater” (Rory Cochrane) wants to smoke a lot of weed and maybe also sell some. Semi-intellectuals played by Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, and Marissa Ribisi want to find a “visceral experience” in between discussions about how Gerald Ford was a member of the Warren Commission. Meanwhile, another incoming Freshman played by Christin Hinojosa does her best to avoid older girls indulging in their own kind of predations, one of whom (played with a slight edge of insanity by a young Parker Posey, who gets lines like, “Wipe that face off your head, bitch!”) vows to make her “life a living hell” for no apparent reason.
The really big future stars are all in slightly smaller roles. Most famously, Matthew McConaughey was discovered by the casting director of this movie in a Downtown Austin bar when the two struck up a conversation with each other about sports. Recognizing McConaughey’s inherent charisma, the casting director brought him in to audition for the role of Wooderson, the slightly older guy who is still hanging out with all the high schoolers, and the rest is history. Ironically, McConaughey was actually younger than most of his co-stars in this movie. His improvised line of “Alright, alright, alright” somehow became his catch phrase, while his line, “I love high school girls, I keep getting older, they stay the same age,” became the most famous line in the movie. A young Affleck shows up as the bully O’Bannion, while Milla Jovovich, who was probably the biggest star in the movie at the time of its filming, has a role that was apparently heavily reduced in the editing room. I realized that it might be the only really down-to-earth role I’ve ever seen her in, given that she went on to make a career as an action star. Similar to Nicholas Cage in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, future 2-time Oscar winner Renee Zellweger makes her first film appearance here, in a non-speaking part.
Linklater has become a critic’s favorite over the years. I saw a few lists of the best films of the past decade as it recently came to a close, and many included 2012’s Boyhood, his film about a boy growing up in Austin that featured the same actors over a period of many years. He has also garnered acclaim for his trilogy of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, which all star Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as the same couple on three separate days of their lives. Most of his movies tend to follow the structure of depicting everyday life while avoiding big, “dramatic” events. On the one hand, he has a great ear for the dialogue and concerns of everyday people. Every one of his movies that I’ve watched has several scenes I still remember. But I’m also often reminded of a scene in Adaptation where Nicolas Cage’s character asks a script guru played by Brian Cox for advice on how to make a story “where nothing much happens… like the real world.” Cox responds with a wonderful shouted rant about how dramatic things happen all the time in the “real world:”
People are murdered every day! There’s genocide, war, corruption! Every fucking day somewhere in the world somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else! Every fucking day someone somewhere makes a conscious decision to destroy someone else! People find love! People lose it! For Christ’s sake! A child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church! Someone goes hungry! Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman! If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know CRAP about life! And WHY THE FUCK are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie? I don’t have any use for it! I don’t have any bloody use for it!
Richard Linklater’s movies, and the people that really, really love them (in any group of 20 or so cineastes, there’s probably one whose favorite movie is Before Sunrise), remind me a lot of that speech. I personally tend to find them slightly less than the sum of their parts. But when the individual parts as good as they are in many of his movies, I’m not really going to argue.
Some of those parts here? Anthony Rapp (25 years before playing the latest Star Trek engineer) and Adam Goldberg watch the older girls hazing the younger ones with a detached, anthropological eye that reminds me of my own high school years: “And it’s like society is condoning this for some reason. They’re allowed to use the parking lot apparently. They’re not hiding. The school and the town are not stopping them…” Slater expounds at length at how George Washington tried to bring marijuana to America, “but there’s always a woman behind any great man, and THAT WOMAN WAS MARTHA WASHINGTON. She always had a bowl waiting for him when he got home from fighting the Revolution.” There’s the bit where Ben Affleck is about to beat up two younger kids at their front doorstep, only for one of their mothers to suddenly open the door holding a shotgun and scream for him to get off her property. And there’s the final speech, where “Pink” quips that, “If I start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself,” and his friend Don (Sasha Jenson) says, in his own way, that all he really wants is to know that he did his best “while [he] was stuck here.” Sure, you’re stuck in a hick town you hate. Most movies answer that question with “well, try to leave.” This movie posits that most people don’t leave, but just lives the best lives they can. While smoking lots and lots of weed.