Once every decade or so, a movie captures the hormone-drenched, fashion- crazed, pop-song-driven rituals of American youth culture with such loving authenticity that it comes to seem a kind of anthem, as innocently giddy and spirited as the teenagers it’s about. George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1972) had this open-eyed exuberance. So, to a lesser degree, did Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). Now, in the exhilarating Dazed and Confused, 31- year-old director Richard Linklater delivers what may be the most slyly funny and dead-on portrait of American teenage life ever made.
Set in an unnamed Texas town on a single day in 1976, Dazed and Confused follows a pack of two dozen teenagers as they celebrate the end of the school year by driving around, consuming ridiculous amounts of beer and marijuana, playing pinball and Foosball, flirting and making out, engaging in some rather bizarre hazing rites, and, finally, ending up at a woodside keg bash on the edge of town. The characters, in other words, engage in the classic American- teen pursuit of thrills, sex, rowdy fun.
Yet if the film’s episodic, all-night-party structure harks back to American Graffiti, its documentary-like style is fresher and looser, nearly Altmanesque, and its subject is new enough to seem revelatory. Dazed and Confused is the first Hollywood movie to capture the high schoolers of the ’70s-the original grunge kids, the first adolescent generation to appropriate the style and values of an older, antiestablishment rebel culture. From its pungent opening shot-a low-riding orange jalopy driving aimlessly around a school parking lot, its slow, circuitous journey lent an oddball dignity by the blissed-out strains of Aerosmith’s ”Sweet Emotion”-Dazed and Confused immerses us in the druggy randomness of life in the ’70s, that singular moment in the 20th century when getting high, dressing in whatever was handy, saying whatever came into your head, and, in general, not doing much of anything somehow passed as righteous behavior.
For anyone who lived through this period, Linklater produces one comic shock of recognition after another. Here are the long-haired brainiac nerds in their flared pants and untucked T-shirts, the dope-smoking jocks greeting one another with soul-brother handshakes, the girls who flaunt themselves (only half-knowingly) in puffy flower-child shirts and jeans as tight as corsets, the stoners who can barely make it through a week of gym class, and the long- haired junior high schoolers (they’re like third-generation hippies) who touchingly imitate everything the older kids do. Linklater doesn’t just capture the clothes, the slang, the cars, the vintage rock songs (by Alice Cooper, Kiss, Foghat). He gets the attitude of carefree dilapidation-the ramshackle, good-time delirium that marked a generation of happy burnouts.
For all that, I suspect younger audiences will respond to Dazed and Confused as enthusiastically as anyone who lived through the era. Linklater is no mere pop anthropologist. He’s an inspired entertainer whose characters are - hilarious, subtle, offbeat, moving-and bracingly life-size. Dazed and Confused is really a stoned comedy of manners. After a while, you begin to grin at the very sight of characters like the sensitive males Tony (Anthony Rapp) and Mike (Adam Goldberg); Pink (Jason London), the dreamboat quarterback who’s squirming about whether to sign a pledge saying he won’t do drugs; Darla (Parker Posey), the gleaming-eyed princess obsessed with ”bitches” and ”sluts”; Slater (Rory Cochrane), the babbling pothead who looks as if he just stepped out of an R. Crumb panel; Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey), the aging lothario whose oily come-ons (and hairstyle) are a priceless study in macho self-delusion; and Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi), the well-grounded smart girl who’s always forecasting the next decade. Ironically, the film’s youngest player may be its breakout star. As Mitch, the junior-high jock whose initiation into sex and drugs and rock & roll marks his coming of age, Wiley Wiggins has a gently acerbic manner and lovely, man-in-the-moon face that make him the movie’s charismatic center of calm.
Here, as in his 1991 debut feature, the wittily perceptive Slacker, Linklater creates characters who are desperate to talk-and have plenty to say- but remain exquisitely sealed inside their own obsessions. Dazed and Confused presents the ’70s as ground zero for this state of consciousness: the first era in which teenagers communicated by wearing their media-addled brains on the outside. Yet if Linklater captures the comic goofiness of the time, he also evokes its liberating spirit. The film finds its meaning in the subtle clash between the older, sadistic macho-jock ethos and the follow-your-impulse hedonism that was the lingering legacy of the ’60s. Dazed and Confused says that, for all its limitations as a life philosophy, there remains something great-and quintessentially American-in the ability to do whatever pleases you at the moment. When Pink finally decides whether or not to sign that football pledge, it’s a small gesture, but it speaks volumes-about a generation that understood, for a few scruffy years, that disregarding all the rules could feel a lot like freedom.