Criterion Project #40: DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993)

Dazed and Confused

Spine #336

Year: 1993

Director: Richard Linklater

After the hectic week I had, the chilled out ’70s party vibes of this week’s title was exactly what the doctor ordered. I’m so happy to be stepping into Linklater’s filmography, which is brimming with almost documentary-like time capsules of human existence. I feel like many of my favorites of his films deal with characters at a very specific age. From Boyhood, to the Before Trilogy, and naturally to Dazed and Confused, he’s shown a knack for perfectly crafting the essence of a singular moment in time.

Dazed and Confused takes place on May 28th, 1976, the last day of school at Lee High. Linklater immediately establishes the class divisions of this high school world by introducing us to a societal tapestry of characters. Almost immediately, we meet the jocks, the nerds, and the stoners. No doubt, one of my favorite details of the youth society woven into the story is the fluidity of the relationships. Though it’s mainly an ensemble piece, the ostensible protagonist is conceivably Randal “Pink” Floyd (Jeremy London), the star quarterback for the football team who juggles a girlfriend, a potential side-piece, and a touch of existential dread in the course of a single day. Through his conflicts we get to see how wide-ranging the relationships are. When Pink has a crisis of personal ethics, the jock calls upon his nerdy friends for guidance. When one of the nerds get into a violent situation near the end, it’s the jock who saves the nerd. When the coolest (but also creepiest) stoner in town lays eyes on the curly-haired, redheaded nerd, he can barely contain himself. It’s like these people all exist together, (mostly) harmoniously with scarcely a hierarchy of power to govern their relationships.

Sure the jocks get away with more shenanigans than the average student, but the threat of conflict doesn’t come from another group within your peers – it comes in the form of authority figures. The movie has several villains but not a conventional baddie. The most obnoxious antagonist in the whole movie is definitely O’Bannon (a marvelously a**hole-ish Ben Affleck) and his incessant need to embarrass and throttle young boys, but he’s not the villain or part of the bigger picture. It’s not even Pickford’s (Shawn Andrews) dad, who puts a stop to the big party when the kegs show up before mom and dad have even left for vacation. No, the main antagonist of many youth films is authority itself, embodied most closely by the football coach and his minions in this movie.

For all of the bullying Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) and his friends have to endure, none of it compares to the absolute dictatorial nature of that crew of coaches. Their entire goal is to mold an individual into a puppet for their athletic prowess. The main conflict in the film is born from the opposing politics between the coaches and Pink, and it all comes to light in this early portion of the film. The energetic assistant coach is the first one to approach the boys as they’re casually walking through school campus. He starts by telling the guys they have expectations for the team while they’re on summer break and not to get soft “laying around the pool, chasing the muff around”. That’s all pretty standard coach stuff, but then the big cheese lays into Pink by calling him out, saying he needs an attitude adjustment, and he needs to stop hanging around with the stoners. We don’t see this kind of pressure from a parent, the ultimate authority in the lives of the youth, so why the heck is this coach so authoritarian? The entire team has also been given a pledge sheet saying they won’t partake in any behavior that could be detrimental to the team, and they’ve been asked to sign the pledge by the end of the day.

Thus follows the existential crisis of a 17-year-old high school quarterback in between a ton of weed smoke, cheap beer, and ’70s rock anthems.

But, like I said earlier, it’s mainly an ensemble story with a tiny thread of narrative string tying it all together. We get to spend equal time with the popular girls, the geeks, the incoming freshmen, the jocks, and the stoners as they go from one location and one party to the next over the course of the evening. Again, the cross-pollination of characters between the groups is really what makes this work for me. Seeing Mitch, an incoming freshman, hanging with Pink and the jocks while they cruise around and chill at the local rec hall binds these people together. We see the seniors and the freshmen existing in the same space and creating this very specialized society. Meanwhile, we also see the true comedic core of the film, Slater (Rory Cochrane) and Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey), routinely slide between the stoners and the jocks with relative ease.

Each group has one of two goals in mind for the night – to experience something for the first time, or for the last time. The nerds are questioning the benefit of their education and yearn for an actual lived experience. The youngsters are stepping into a new world and hope to ignite their high school experience while avoiding a wooden paddle from incoming seniors like Pink and his boys.

And it’s that popular group of Pink and Co. that exudes the sadness of existential uncertainty. They are undoubtedly the kings of the school and are seemingly invincible (which is a common theme in high school films), but there are questions within this group. Pink begins the conversation early on by asking why they do what others expect them to do instead of living their own lives. While strolling through the halls with his ogre of a friend, Don (Sasha Jenson), Pink wonders aloud why they play football, aside from helping them get laid. The question is lost on Don but it begins the conversation and opens the line of questioning about their roles in their own lives. Though it’s been a while since I was that age, I’m sure it’s a common sentiment among the youth no matter what time-frame we’re in.

And their fears come out in the most relatable of ways – late night at a high school party. I’d venture to say the majority of people who connect with this film have probably had a 3:00 AM discussion or two with a slightly drunken friend. That’s when the heart-to-hearts happen. Again, Linklater understands these people and this particular place in time.

The film is truly at its best when we’re just hanging out with these groups of people, whether they’re zipping up their designer jeans with a pair of pliers or painting a perfect Gene Simmons face on an historical statue. These characters feel real, like they have a past and a present life you can almost see. And they behave in way that embodies authenticity. We’ve all known at least a few characters from this film, or perhaps we were one of them many moons ago. I’d personally identify with the semi-cool nerds looking for life experience as they come to the end of their high school career. There’s really a character for everyone.

That was a choppy write-up up but to really experience Dazed and Confused is to feel the mood. It feels like a link to past events, or like something we all experienced and somebody filmed it. All the credit in the world goes to Richard Linklater’s writing and directing on this film to achieve that level of authenticity. And for a tale that mainly avoids traditional narrative style, it feels like a cohesive piece. Not everyone in the film has a goal, but everyone has a unique arc and ended the day a little different than how they began it. Who knows if it changed them permanently, but they learned something at least for one night. Sometimes that’s a start to something bigger. I love this movie.

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