Dazed and Confused (1993)
Written and directed Richard Linklatter
The seventies was an interesting time for America, a period of transition between the radical sixties and the outrageous eighties. Vietnam was over and the Cold War had entered a period of détente. They’d put men on the moon so many times that the public considered it routine. Everyone was doing drugs, not just the hippies. Feminism and muscle cars, hard rock and disco, comic books and horror films, mom’s casserole and drive-ins. It all sounds good, but things like crime, inner city poverty, a stagnant economy and plain old national boredom were beginning to creep up on America.
That’s the setting for Dazed and Confused. It’s the last day of school and all the high school seniors are rearing to participate in the event of the season: the hazing of the freshmen. After that, an end of school keg party at Kevin Pickford’s house. Unfortunately, Pickford’s parents catch wind of this and postpone their vacation, forcing everyone to do the same thing they always do — drive around town looking for something, anything interesting to do. Luckily, a new fiesta is in the making and the promise of some excitement draws all our characters to a monster bush party.
A story about a single day in a nameless American town in 1976, Dazed and Confused is as much about the atmosphere of the seventies as it is about any particular event. It’s a lighthearted, character driven, coming-of-age movie so effective at delivering its slice of life tale you can almost imagine yourself as one of the many high school characters. Every detail has been thought of: shaggy hair, funny clothes, muscle cars, rock music, even drive-in fast food joints with funny signs. If you were a teenager in the seventies it will no doubt induce some flashbacks and not just because of that acid you dropped.
There is no hero in the traditional sense, the film instead shifts the point of view from character to character as films of this type tend to do. It does however, focus somewhat on Randy Floyd (Jason London), the high school’s star quarterback, and Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), a new freshman, who Floyd takes under his wing. Floyd’s popularity bridges numerous social circles including his football mates Don, Benny and Melvin (Sasha Jenson, Cole Hauser, Jason O. Smith) his intellectual card playing friends Mike, Tony and Cynthia (Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, Marissa Ribisi) and his stoner pals Slater, Pickford and Michelle (Rory Cochrane, Shawn Andrews, Milla Jovovich). Even former students like Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey) are friends. Though he has a girlfriend, Floyd also has eyes for Mitch’s big sister Jodi (Michelle Burke).
A story like this has no particular villains either, more like antagonistic characters who take their jobs too seriously. Seniors O’Bannion and Darla (Ben Affleck, Parker Posey) like hazing the freshmen at bit too much and Coach Conrad is far too preoccupied with making Floyd sign a no-drugs pledge sheet. Even the community itself is perhaps a little antagonistic to the characters, turning a blind eye to the hazing of its kids, the boredom of its youth and obsessing, like America does, over promising sports players like Floyd who, like most young men, really just wants to have fun.
While the sheer size of the cast is impressive enough, the film is also notable for the number of young actors you will recognize who have since gone on to much larger projects. Everyone knows who Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck are, but you are also likely to recognize Mila Jovovich (Resident Evil), Rory Cochrane (CSI: Miami), Adam Goldberg (A Beautiful Mind), Parker Posey (Superman Returns) and Cole Hauser (Pitch Black). As a sad sort of irony, Jason London, who turns in a very likable leading performance as Floyd, has done nothing but B-movies ever since.
Dazed is sometimes labelled as a stoner flick, perhaps because of its name or maybe the hilarious character of Slater, but drug use in the movie is actually quite innocent compared to what people were up to in the seventies. Only a handful of characters smoke up in a couple of scenes and the rest of them just drink beer. This is small town USA, after all. A lot of other negative aspects of the seventies are downplayed in the film, while positive stuff like music is emphasized. Still, at least some of the characters are aware of the doldrums of the era. Cynthia comments, “Maybe the 80s will be like radical or something. I figure we’ll be in our 20s and it can’t get worse.” If she only knew.
Writer and director Richard Linklatter (A Scanner Darkly) has something of a knack for movies like this and his genius for setting the stage is evident even as the opening credits roll. Five minutes in and you know exactly where and when you are; it’s one of the most effective story introductions ever filmed. Dazed and Confused is not an original concept for a film, but it does for the seventies what American Graffiti did for the sixties, Fast Times at Ridgemont High did for the eighties, American Pie did for the nineties and Superbad did for the aughts. Like these other films, the entertainment value of Dazed and Confused comes not from watching something amazing go down, but from watching the interaction of the various characters with each other. The fact that it is set in the seventies is a clever nostalgic touch, but not strictly essential to a story such as this. These could be kids from any decade. I was a teenager in the late eighties, and the situations we got into weren’t much different. As for any message, Don Dawson lays it out:
Well, all I’m saying is that I want to look back and say that I did I the best I could while I was stuck in this place. Had as much fun as I could while I was stuck in this place. Played as hard as I could while I was stuck in this place… Dogged as many girls as I could while I was stuck in this place.
Decade after decade, that’s always been what young people were thinking. It’s what I was thinking. America, and presumably Don, Randy, Mitch and all the rest, survived the boredom of the seventies and still managed to have a little fun along the way. As for you and I, we get to have some fun too, watching them cut loose, being there with them in ’76, even if it’s only for one night.