“Hey, what’s going on?”
“Nothing at all.”
When Dazed and Confused opened in theatres 25 years ago, it arrived in the wake of a teen movie golden era defined by the likes of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
But this John Hughes model, of upper-middle-class teens trying out rebellion and reinvention in a poppy, PG-13 suburbia, was the antithesis of what writer-director Richard Linklater had envisioned when he began developing his own high school film in the late 1980s.
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Linklater didn’t want to see another teen drama where “the girl gets pregnant and there’s a car crash and somebody dies”, so he decided to make one about the largely uneventful small-town youth he remembered instead.
It wouldn’t deliver the instant sugar high that the popular high school movies of the previous decade had.
Following various intersecting groups of Austin teens on the last day and night of school for the students of Lee High, in May of ‘76, Dazed and Confused is never about anything more dramatic than its characters trying to organise a start-of-summer rager after the last one got busted.
Welcomed at first by polite reviews and half-empty theatres, a quarter-century on Linklater’s anti-drama is considered a landmark high school film.
Quentin Tarantino has dubbed it the ultimate ‘hangout movie’: a film you’ll return to ad infinitum because the experience is akin to catching up with old friends.
Dazed’s young boomers aren’t high school movie types. They can’t simply be reduced to “a beauty, a jock, a rebel”: nominal protagonist Randall ‘Pink’ Floyd (Jason London) is as at home with the jocks as he is with the burnouts.
So authentic are Linklater’s high schoolers that, even if you had caught Dazed back when then-fresh-faced cast members including Ben Affleck, Parker Posey and Matthew McConaughey were strangers to the audience, they still would have felt familiar.
It’s down to the anthropological script written by Linklater, ever the curious humanist, and his ensemble of hungry future stars. Cast chemistry was proof-tested on and off set, reshaping the film as it shot.
While Shawn Andrews and Milla Jovovich’s roles were reduced after Linklater saw they weren’t ‘gelling’ with the other actors, McConaughey’s natural bonhomie expanded his initial cameo as predatory space-age philosopher Wooderson into a fully-fledged supporting role.
In jettisoning the ‘pregnancies and car crashes’, Linklater gave his actors room to breathe as regular kids in regular situations. It’s in the ordinary, and not in the heightened drama that movies typically locate characters in, that Dazed and Confused finds its real people.
The film’s kinda-sequel, the less specific and more idealised college comedy Everybody Wants Some!! (2016), is almost the rose-tinted, everything-happens-in-one-weekend account of young adult life that Linklater wanted to avoid with Dazed.
Made 28 years and 18 films into Linklater’s filmmaking career, Everybody Wants Some!!, raucously entertaining though it is, comes precariously close to being middle-aged nostalgia for a never-been age. Dazed and Confused in contrast was made when Linklater was just 32, young enough for high school to be fresh in the memory and for his latest film to recall what being a teen was really like.
In Dazed and Confused, high schoolers are hyper, horny and perpetually anxious about a fast-approaching future.
Sometimes, they’re impossibly cool, strolling through pool halls in slo-mo as Bob Dylan blares on the soundtrack. More often, they’re a little lame (some of the mid-70s music tastes, clothes and attitudes are observed by Linklater with eyebrow firmly arched).
Mostly, though, they’re just bored. Two of Linklater’s touchstones on Dazed were the sobering American teen flicks Over the Edge (1979) and River’s Edge (1986). This being a Richard Linklater joint, Dazed is naturally a warmer film: with its reliably good-natured characters and marijuana-cured dialogue, it might actually be his most entertaining.
What Linklater took from those considerably more downbeat high school movies was the characters’ sense of longing, of waiting for something to happen.
Dazed and Confused’s high schoolers have fun, holding impromptu drag-races in their prized muscle cars and ‘welcoming’ freshmen in bizarre hazing rituals, but for the most part they drink, smoke and shoot the breeze in the anticipation of fun.
It takes skill for a filmmaker to make a deliberately constructed film feel this easy-going, especially when they’re making the leap from a $23,000 indie to a $6.9m studio movie. (Dazed and Confused’s opening and closing track, Aerosmith’s ‘Sweet Emotion’, alone cost four times the budget of Slacker, Linklater’s previous film.)
Even rarer is the ability to make a film so free of conflict and obvious drama compelling.
That Linklater ignores the Hitchcock maxim to keep the dull bits in is what sets Dazed and Confused apart from other high school movies. It’s also what makes the film feel so genuine.
In recalling the tedium of teenage as well as the glorious, sporadic highs, Linklater’s is an anti-high school movie that ironically gets about as close to a real high school experience as a film can.