That said, watching “Dazed and Confused” now is a breath of fresh air.
High school movies can and often do rank among the most clichéd, melodramatic movies out there, filled with stock characters who do little more than fill in the blanks of “required” stereotypes instead of giving us relatable, recognizable characters. All too often as well are the situations these characters find themselves in, with almost none of them being things any reasonable high schooler experienced.
The biggest triumph of Richard Linklater’s sophomore film is that he crafts characters and a progression that feels wholly organic.
Based on Linklater’s experiences growing up in Huntsville, “Dazed and Confused” doesn’t really follow a plot or story so much as it simply drops us into the middle of a group of kids either on the brink of entering or exiting high school. The film opens on the last day of school in 1976 and takes us all the way through to the early morning hours the following day as collection of seniors, juniors and incoming freshmen attempt to do little more than enjoy their newfound (if short-lived) freedom.
The biggest compliment I can pay to Linklater’s love letter to his youth is that it feels real, like an observation given form and projected onto a screen. The kids all do fine (and it’s even something of a roll call for “Huh, I had no idea they were actors that young” with appearances by Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Cole Hauser, Joey Lauren Adams, Adam Goldberg, Parker Posey and Nicky Katt), though it’s kind of a shame that Matthew McConaughey’s character seems to steal most people’s attention as he’s mostly a peripheral character.
What really gives the movie its flare and personality, though, is the soundtrack. Linklater assembles what has to be one of the best (if not the best, depending on your tastes) soundtracks in film history. On paper it plays out like a “yeah man, remember this song?” but Linklater drops them so well that it overcomes any sense of overuse. It also helps that each is used in an organic way, not just in the way it fits the tone of the scene, but that it’s almost a step away from being diegetic, as though this is precisely what’s playing over the car stereo or from the jukebox.
As a follow up to “Slacker,” it’s definitely of a pair and a natural evolution from what Linklater crafted before, especially in the way he moves organically and seamlessly from one scene to the next. The emphasis on establishing and maintaining a tone and showcasing these unique personalities is far more the intent here than telling any kind of a story. Linklater is out to make observations and to drop us into a meticulously depicted moment in time, a snapshot, and on that front he succeeds marvelously.
Next week, I’ll continue looking at Linklater’s films with a review of “Before Sunrise.”
Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On…” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.