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Dazed and Confused (1993)::rating::5::rating::5

Dazed and Confused contains one of my favorite moments in all of movie history.  It’s late in the film, and if you blink, it could slip by:  Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London), a small-town quarterback stud, is splitting a midnight blunt with his buds at the 50-yard line.  Pink spends the movie in a malaise, stuck between what’s expected from him and what he really wants.  For a moment, director Richard Linklater pans around him.  The visuals go into slow-motion, but the dialogue stays at full speed.  It’s as if Pink has suddenly become self-aware of the adage that youth is wasted on the young, and we see the moment through his eyes.  He tries desperately to slow down time for a few seconds before rejoining the party.  It’s a small piece of visual poetry, and it’s glorious.

Nothing else in Dazed and Confused can match that cinematic perfection, but Linklater still manages to turn all the clichés upside down.  There are no actual stakes here–beyond, of course, the usual high school pitfalls of whether or not to go out for football, or how to bluff mom with a heavy beer buzz.  Also, there’s virtually no plot momentum to speak of:  Linklater builds his script like a lazy river, and then sets his characters adrift in its current.

Those characters fall into two categories:  The seniors-to-be, most of who revel in their new status atop the food chain; and the lowly freshmen, who know that ninth grade means a heavy dose of hazing.  Of course, there are different cliques, but Linklater makes the correct decision to blur the lines.  Most high school movies will lazily separate the groups like oil and water, but that’s almost never the case.  Here, Pink mingles with the nerds (including the very young Adam Goldberg and Marissa Ribisi), and most of the jocks blaze with stoner Slater (Rory Cochrane).

The freshmen kids are led by Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), who is essentially a younger version of Pink.  Laid-back and well-liked, Mitch is a star baseball player with a popular older sister (Michelle Burke).  The seniors spank Mitch and his buddies with wooden paddles, while the girls get soaked in condiments and driven through a car wash.  Some seniors live for the hazing (Posey heads up a squad of mean girls), while others steer clear.  Affleck plays a flunked senior who loves to whoop freshmen, oblivious to the fact he’s the biggest joke of all.  McConaughey nearly steals the entire movie as a twenty-something still living on faded football glory.  (Looking back, it’s no wonder he became such a huge star.)

For a movie with so much going on, there’s really not an actual throughline.  The closest we get is the drug-free pledge that Pink is pressured to sign.  Most of the characters have different reactions, and they to influence Pink accordingly.  Naturally, the jocks want him to sign and just play some football.  The nerds feel he should stand strong against “Neo-McCarthyism.”  Meanwhile, the meathead coaches are just sick of his lax attitude, along all with his stoner buddies.

Linklater’s opus actually succeeds on two competing fronts:  On one hand, this is a paean to 70s pop culture.  The soundtrack is a perfect compilation of what these kids would blasting in their Falcons and Chevelles.  Most teenagers don’t yet have a firm musical palate, which means that “Paranoid” can sit next to “Jim Dandy” and “Low Rider” on the mix and still sound perfectly natural.  Every rewatch of Dazed will give you deeper appreciation of every outfit, every muscle car–even the signs in the background.  Like any great filmmaker, Linklater pays attention to the little details.

On the other front, Dazed and Confused feels completely timeless.  Anybody who’s lived through the blessing and curse of high school will find common ground with this movie. (At this age, I was definitely a nerd.  By college, I evolved into Pink, who could find a way to get along with everybody.  Now, I’m probably just the old gas station clerk who sells beer to an eighth grader.)  For all its nostalgia for post-Watergate America, Dazed will always feel surprisingly relatable.

A big reason for that is the underrated humanity of the cast.  All the leads, especially London, Goldberg, and McConaughey, bring depth and complexity to their parts.  Beyond that, Posey excels as the screamy bitch queen.  (There must be one of her in every grade of every high school in the United Stated, right?). Affleck is note-perfect as the douche who’s already a has-been before the age of twenty.  And there’s Cochrane, whose brain churns awfully fast for somebody so perpetually baked.  Taken in all, Dazed is the perfect symbiosis between director and cast.  Linklater may have given these talented people their big shot, but they also oblige him by turning his movie into an enduring classic.

In fact, Dazed and Confused is the Citizen Kane of high school flicks, and it’s really not even close.  All the quotable dialogue.  The sly humor.  The quiet drama.  Everything lands brilliantly.  I’ve heard people talk about movies that make them put down the remote when flipping through channels.  This is one of those movies for me.  I get older, and it stays the same age.

102 minutes.  Amazon Video.  R.


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