There were teen movies before Dazed and Confused that used the same narrative structure: a single memorable night tracing a large ensemble. In fact, the greatest teen movie in cinema history prior to the release Dazed and Confused, American Graffiti, sets up the template to perfection: A bunch of meandering threads that criss-cross until everyone ends up at the same location a little before sunset.
But no teen movie had ever embraced a lack of plot or character development to the extent that Dazed and Confused does. It’s ideological in its chillin’. This is where the Richard Linklater ethos took full form. I’ve seen this film described as “vibes only,” which is not quite right as a label. There’s too much richness in the cross-section of characters and the forging of their adolescent souls to dismiss it all as “vibes.” But “vibes only” is not quite wrong as a label, either.
Dazed and Confused rejects the idea that teenaged existence can be crammed into easily digested linear narratives. Consider the dynamic between Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London), his girlfriend Simone (Joey Lauren Adams), and Jodi (Michelle Burke). Pink has clearly lost interest in Simone and connected with the likable Jodi. Almost any other teen movie would have Pink and Jodi get together by the end of the film — a mini Happily Ever After, maybe giving us some reason to hate Simone. Sure enough, we get one scene of Pink and Jodi making out in the woods. But then Jodi heads home from the party, and Pink bumps back into Simone, and things return to the status quo. Perhaps Jodi and Pink finally get together before they graduate; perhaps they circle each other but never get the timing right, then grow up and move on. We don’t know. In the eyes of Dazed and Confused, it’s just one little thread of one small story in a huge, colorful panorama of humanity that exists even in a small Texas high school.
The film also has a complex relationship with nostalgia. On the one hand, it is a deeply nostalgic film on the surface. It recreates the thrill and the sense of possibility of a night out with your friends. Everyone here is living what most viewers would call the good-old-days: A carefree time when nothing mattered but looking forward to an Aerosmith concert and hanging out at the Moon Tower. Inside jokes, rituals, nonstop radio jams. Life is, from the outside, quite good.
But it’s not as simple as that: If the film is texturally pro-nostalgia, it is textually anti-nostalgia. Many of the characters are unhappy or nasty to each other, and this gives the film some much-needed edge to counter the rose-tinted view of the past. None of us were quite so generous and upbeat in high school as we might have wished we were. Many characters openly profess boredom and the gnawing urge for something more meaningful: “All I’m saying is that if I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life — remind me to kill myself,” mopes Pink. Characters engage in gratuitous hazing, not to mention Wooderson’s (Matthew McConaughey) incessant grooming of underage girls. On the other hand, Wooderson facilitates the Moon Tower party and is as gentle and non-pressuring as any adult partying with high schoolers could possibly be, providing a reassuring voice to Pink that it’ll all work out so long as he keeps L-I-V-I-N livin’. It’s complex, you see. No simple morals or takeaways.
All that makes the movie sound a bit academic and pretentious, which is exactly what it isn’t. Dazed and Confused works because it is so damn fun. It’s so unburdened and smoothly flowing that it almost seems too easy. (But if it was easy, there’d be a Dazed and Confused every other year, and there hasn’t been one since.) It’s so joyful to watch these kids cruise from school to baseball practice to a party, always searching for the next good time. Linklater has filled the movie with so many energetic and fun moments that the film never loses its sense of delight.
Linklater must have spent a lot of time studying Cassavetes and the neo-realism movement. He takes the John Hughes template for high teen melodrama and turns it inside out. The dialogue feels unscripted and natural, as if these are regular kids talking about everyday things; the exact opposite of, e.g., the big Breakfast Club speeches. There aren’t too many jokes per se; they’re more like riffs. There’s no punchline to the Martha Washington “cool, cool lady” monologue by Slater (Rory Cochrane), but that means every contour of it is worth celebrating and memorizing. (Slater, by the way, is one of cinema’s great stoners.)
The script — and the subsequent near-universally terrific performances by the loaded cast — gives inner life and personality to no fewer than two dozen characters, and you could probably go higher than that. That’s one reason the film is so rewatchable — you can pick a new character or two each time through and try and dissect how they relate to the other characters and to the world around them.
As perfect as the script is, it might be only the third-most important contribution by Linklater to the film. We must consider, first, his terrific direction and production leadership. After Everybody Wants Some!! released, I read an interview where one actor cited Linklater’s “Wikipedia” brain — you give him a scenario or topic, and he could tell you, in depth, what it needed to look and feel like, and how it connected to other things. This results in films where every detail feels like an authentic treasure; the fashion, the styles, the gestures, the turns of phrase, all add up to a vivid world. He may not have designed every single facet himself, but his guiding vision holds it together.
His ability with a camera is incredible, too. Every scene feels like a marvelous, physical space that you want to hop into and explore. I’m not sure any director I’ve ever watched has done a better job at shooting people in a car (a sizable portion of the film), making it feel realistic and spatially elegant, the way Linklater does.
Of all of the elements that bring life to the film, none is more important than the soundtrack. If there’s a film that uses music better than Dazed and Confused, then… well, it’s probably American Graffiti. But if this movie isn’t quite so formally inventive with its use of musical diegesis as American Graffiti, it goes even further to construct a distinct texture for each scene with its music. Just like it’s impossible to imagine the opening Star Wars text crawl without John Williams’ soaring anthem; and even if you could, it wouldn’t work — so, e.g., the lovely Emporium scene is not itself without “Hurricane.” And that is true of, almost literally, every single scene of the movie. The radio rock soundtrack is the soul of the film. It’s tempting to list every needle drop in bulleted list, but a few favorites are “Low Rider” during the sunset cruising scene; “Tuesday’s Gone” for the party wind-down; “Why Can’t We Be Friends” for the “air raid”; and “Slow Ride” for the unspeakably perfect final cruise down the highway.
The miracle of Dazed and Confused is not any of its components, or even the remarkable summation of them, but the way that surpasses that. It coalesces into a transcendent whole where each piece improves the other. This film simultaneously speaks so many universal, timeless truths about adolescence and finding one’s place in the world… yet gives us a perfect, tiny portrait of a specific time and place. There’s no better movie to make you feel young, or feel old, or feel both at the same time; either way, you’ll want to grab an ice cold brew and go cruising with these kids one more time.