The events depicted in Dazed and Confused are ones we can picture its characters discussing nostalgically at a high school reunion some decades later. For the unmotivated who preferred to peak during their teenage years instead of overcoming them, the night and following morning of the last school day of 1976 may as well contain their best memories. For the kids who claim they want nothing more than to escape from this quaint Texas town and really mean it, it will be a few hours worth of warm nostalgia, looked back on with considerable, heartfelt appreciation.
When in the plights of retrospection, society tends to eulogize their teenage years as being some of the best of their lives, forgetting the pains, sorrows, and fears because it was a time of unknowns, of no major responsibilities. Everyone, whether you were a bullheaded jock or a geek who always wore pants two sizes too small, can understand the sentimentality. Even me, who graduated almost a year ago, can remember the most convivial of moments as clear as day, with drama between friends and family distinctly foggy.
Dazed and Confused is a masterpiece in this regard. It is so unforced and nimbly "real" that we feel as if we knew these teenagers, as though we went to school with them, had an opinion of them, and decided what would eventually happen to them as adults while we escaped our own problems. It has a lot to do with the fact that writer/director Richard Linklater, one of the finest filmmakers of his generation, doesn’t just focus on a small group of friends for clarity. He acquaints us with everyone, from the curious, frightened freshman to the animated seniors, ranging from piggish to intelligent to shy. We feel a connection, an emotional pull, in ways only imitated in Robert Altman’s Nashville. Impressive is how it only takes Linklater 101 minutes to do so.
As previously mentioned, the film takes place within the twenty-four hours following the last day of school in 1976, where dark secrets, pot, liquor, rock ’n’ roll, and strange bedfellows underline immediate goings-on. The most shameless of seniors are plotting to mercilessly haze the incoming freshman, the freshman deciding either to take it or get away from the humiliating dangers. After the schoolyard atrocities are over and done with, most students are planning to head to Kevin Pickford’s (Shawn Andrews) house for what is rumored to be the best party in town. But plans are spoiled by parental interference, drawing most to the city’s pool hall, drive-in, football field, or the little park under the moonlight tower. Driving aimlessly is as much an option, too.
I won’t bother to name the characters of Dazed and Confused as there are too many to count, with none necessarily more important than others. While we have our supposed leads, shift anywhere else and we’d have a different movie. Linklater wondrously defines his most active onscreen participants as well as he does the ones of whom we hardly catch a glimpse. We’re watching the class of 1976 meddle with the class of 1979 with results we’d expect to see in real life. The naturalistic pulse of the film is crisp. We’re watching a classic that didn’t mean to be a classic.
Because it is wistful and sometimes cruel, a nostalgic memory with as many optimistic pauses as there are portions of negativity. But that’s what makes the film such a unique, personal experience — it’s something like watching life unfold, and we rarely get to see such an occurrence in the otherwise artificial world of the movies. The soundtrack, glorifying nearly every single rock hit of the 1970s (“Paranoid” by Black Sabbath is here and so is Foghat’s “Slow Ride”), is close to the heart; the many appearances by actors to later achieve widespread recognition (Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Adam Goldberg, Rory Cochrane) causes an unexpected rationale that we’re watching them come of age.
Sprawling and chaotic it is, but faux it isn’t. Dazed and Confused is a high school movie that doesn’t feel like a high school movie, attentive of the hopes and dreams of the characters with such clearness that I’d even call it better than Flirting. Some of its focal individuals will stay in Austin, Texas forever, and do nothing with their lives. Some will find great success. We can imagine these characters’ pasts just as much as we can their futures. A