Compressing your story into the time frame of a single day (or night) can be a challenge, but it can be done, and those who have tackled the challenge successfully include Virginia Woolf (“Mrs. Dalloway”) and Richard Linklater with the movie “Dazed and Confused.” Set in 1976 on the last day of school, it follows about a dozen teens, as they celebrate their freedom by drinking, smoking, toking, hooking up, and hazing the incoming freshmen. It features actors who would go on to become major stars (Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey), as well as ones that were indie darlings at the time (Parker Posey) and others whose careers would not turn out to be so illustrious. Perhaps as a sign that the director takes these characters seriously, they almost all have first and last names, regardless of how much dialogue they’re given. And at least a few are based on real people who were upset enough to see their big screen depictions that they tried suing Linklater. Frankly, if it were me, I’d be kind of flattered.
In “Dazed and Confused,” there is generally harmony between the various groups, at least when it comes to sharing weed and partying, though there are a few flare ups here and there. Marijuana and beer are the bridge between exalted seniors and lowly freshmen; jocks and stoners; bullies and victims, etc. Partly because of the freely passed around stimulants, and partly because adolescence is a time where you take self-discovery seriously, there is a lot of philosophizing in this movie, some of it wise, some of it, well, half-baked. There are also moral dilemmas for the characters to grapple with, such as football player Jason London (a movie jock who actually isn’t a one dimensional jerk) who must decide if he will sign an contract from his coach swearing to stay clean. Jason’s character “Pink” Floyd gets the best line of the movie, in my opinion. “If I start referring to these as the best years of my life,” he deadpans, “remind me to kill myself.”
Many teen movies climax with a Big Game, Big Party or Big Showdown. “Dazed and Confused,” has all three, but they’re presented as just part of the 24-hour period. Rather than have everyone congregate at a house party, there’s a twist where the would-be host’s parents get wind of the situation and decide to stay home. Thus the poor kids are forced to head off into the night in search of entertainment, but they succeed admirably. As for the game, there’s a part where freshman Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) pitches, but his concentration is impaired by a group of seniors who taunt him with the possibility of getting paddled (apparently a tradition for the boys). The girls also undergo a ritual humiliation, but since both freshmen characters wind up getting their own back, I wouldn’t say that the movie glorifies bullying. Actually, it probes the mixture of admiration and fear the victims have for their tormentors, such as when Jason’s character tells Wiley’s that his seniors wound up paddling the crap out of him and then took him out for a drink. Even Parker’s character who gleefully squirts condiments all over the freshmen girls seems to have some self-awareness when she notes she’s”supposed to be being a bitch.” Moreover, revenge ultimately happens, even if it’s a dish best tasted cold.
I was pretty young during the time period in which the movie is set, and thankfully, never had hazing like this when I did reach high school age, though I believe the athletes had something similar to the contract Jason and his buddies had to choose whether or not to sign. In “Dazed and Confused,” there are no major moments of redemption, just small ones where the character triumphs or has a revelation. This may make it different from many teen movies of that era, but perhaps it more accurately reflects reality for that age group.