The genre of the teen coming of age comedy has had its up and downs. Often mired in gross out or lost in sentimentality, much like the process they reflect these movies can be notoriously messy. When they get it right thought it can be a genre that is timeless, nostalgic and like no other and, with Dazed and Confused, that is just what writer/director Richard Linklater achieved.
Geographically and historically this is set far from my own experience, being based on the other side of the world in Texas and in 1976, the year my own father was doing the Guernsey equivalent of graduating high school. However, with this tale of the last day of school and the first night of summer, Linklater combines just enough realism with a good dose of archetype, to make this work.
As the sounds of Aerosmith’s Sweet Emotion play we are dropped into the midst of this hectic 24 hours and it is strangely instantly familiar. Seniors face the challenges of leaving school, others have worries about the next year’s sports team or grades, while the incoming freshmen equally dread and relish the new-found seniority coming their way.
To portray this Linklater assembled a huge cast of characters each of whom fits a familiar archetype that, even this far away, are recognisable. There are jocks, cheerleaders, stoners, nerds and the yet to be socially assigned freshmen, but, where other films keep the divisions between these groups clear, in Dazed and Confused they intermingle and merge, to a degree, presenting something far more reminiscent of the reality of school.
Of course everything here is heightened and the film is a comedy, though thankfully not in the gross out sense of many, seemingly cramming a whole summer into this shorter period, it’s as much about atmosphere and feeling as it is story and it creates this expertly.
We are lead on the journey by Jason London’s Randall ‘Pink’ Floyd and Wiley Wiggins’ Mitch Kramer, at very different but intersecting ends of the social spectrum and, while none of the characters are wholly developed, we get just enough detail to know who they are.
Amongst the huge cast there are standouts, Ben Affleck is notable for his early film appearance as the school’s biggest bully of freshmen, but, despite his relatively small time on-screen it is Matthew McConaughey, as David Wooderson, who remains most vividly in the imagination with the still trademark ‘Alright, alright, alright’ and as the elder statesmen of the group, a kind of Fonz for the next generation.
Equipped with seemingly all the worldly knowledge the teens seek and a hook up on a beer bash and potential Aerosmith tickets – a pair of holy grails – he is a beacon of a kind of hope, though in reflection, much like Arthur Fonzerelli, it’s clear he could easily become a tragic figure of arrested development, stuck reliving his past… But that’s a negative thought and far from what this is all about.
If there’s any criticism could be levelled at the film its that most of the female characters are even less developed than their male counterparts, but as this is Linklater’s view of teenage life this is likely a reflection of the archetypal teenage boys view of the world that adds to the over all feeling of the film.
By its conclusion as a long summer (and no doubt some first hangovers) beckon, and a car containing, Floyd, Wooderson and others heads off into the sunrise to get those concert tickets, Dazed and Confused acts as a pinnacle of nostalgic youthful exuberance on-screen. Who needs a story and fully rounded characters, we didn’t have those at that age, this is all about spontaneity, feeling and, dare I say it, Sweet Emotion, and its captures those like nothing else.
And because the whole soundtrack is great and this is an excellent intro to a movie, here’s the Sweet Emotion opening montage: