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As director/writer Richard Linklater’s follow-up to the beloved cult film Slacker, Dazed and Confused pulls off a nice trick. While it essentially follows the same blueprint as its predecessor, it commercially improves on it in nearly every way, turning quirks into a solid formula. Linklater’s soon-to-be-trademark non-narrative, single day ensemble film grew into its own with what could merely been a nostalgic gaze back on his teenage years.

Although it’s debated how much of the background of the film was drawn from Linklater’s own Texan upbringing, (most recently in a 2004 lawsuit from individuals respectively surnamed Floyd, Slater and Wooderson), it’s undeniable that Dazed and Confused captures the spirit of liberation, jubilation and frustration that comes on the last day of school. Personally, I’m a sucker for high school movies, probably because I managed to dodge out on that particular adolescent experience. Since I never experienced the majesty of the swirlie or a varsity sports game, I have to take it on faith that films from Rebel Without a Cause to The Breakfast Club have a basis in reality. Whatever the case may be, Dazed and Confused manages to make me both sentimental and bitter towards an experience I never had.

Set on the final day of a Texan high school in 1976, the minimalist plot follows a bevy of students, from football lunkheads to frizzy-haired nerds to freshman with nary an armpit hair to their name. The complicated relationship of the freshers to the new seniors drives what action there is in the film, as a strange summer hazing (female seniors covering their charges in ketchup and leading them on dog chains; males beating the hell out of their weaker counterparts with paddles) begins. The nominal lead, a senior named “Pink” Floyd (Jason London) smokes pot, drifts between social circles and agonizes over signing a football pledge decrying evil, evil narcotics, while an incoming freshman gets his ass kicked and then shapes up into a pretty cool dude. That’s pretty much it. Oh, and there’s a big party in the woods.

Dazed and Confused - Senior girls

But that’s incredibly reductive for a film that actually manages to grasp hold of adolescent stereotypes- and instead of skewering or worse- shows how we’re all kind of like them, maaan, shows us as individuals within those shapes. The horny jock, the nerdy intellectual, the stoner who can’t seem to shut up, all of them seem to be people inhabiting Linklater’s film rather than stock characters to be used. His lack of a strong narrative certainly helps, rarely sticking to a single individual or group for more than a few minutes, though so does the strong supporting cast. Although few of the faces became marquee stars (Milla Jovovich, Ben Affleck and Matthew McConaughey notably making it), each actor imbues their role with a sincerity and lack of guile that’s refreshing. Unlike films that display high school as a Neutrogena ad (Varsity Blues being an egregious example, except for the fat kid), these students actually seem like, well, students. That is, except McConaughey, whose indelible portrayal of the coolest potential statutory rapist ever is one of the highlights of the film. It’s a testament to both him and Linklater to imbue such naked charm and likability to such a sleazy character.

But more than anything else, that the strange aggressions of youth are handled so well really sets Dazed and Confused apart from most such films. The violence of a young boy being smacked around by his soon-to-be peers is seen from both sides, in an iconic scene set to Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” We can see the pain in the freshman’s face, just barely through his shaggy hair as he’s pummeled in slow motion, but we can also feel the exhilaration and power of social approval of the upperclassmen as they hoot and holler around him. And barely hours later in the film, they’re mixing in the same social circles, the power dynamic not disappearing, just reshaping. Adolescence is a weird time.

Although Dazed and Confused wasn’t particularly a commercial success, it certainly shows that Linklater was quickly picking up the skills to put one together. There’s a sheen to the film that Slacker lacked, most notably in the seamlessness of the ultra-’70s soundtrack. While Dazed and Confused may have hinted that Linklater had aspirations that didn’t solely lie in the realm of the art house, it’s comforting in retrospect to know that didn’t diminish him as a filmmaker.

by Nathan Kamal

 

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