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Dazed and Confused

The Criterion Collection

Starring Starring Wiley Wiggins, Jason London, Ben Affleck,
and Matthew McConaughey

Written and Directed by Richard Linklater

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

In his first three feature films, director Richard Linklater established himself as uniquely acute anthropologist of post-counter-culture youth. His striking 1991 indie debut, Slacker, earned a cult following for its free-associating depiction of over-educated and disaffected college town riff-raff, and 1995's Before Sunrise eked a resonating and realistic romance out of the milieu of pretentious backpackers wandering pointlessly around Europe. But it was Linklater's second feature, the American Graffiti-like Dazed and Confused, in 1993 that stands as his most stimulating and profound snapshot of how young people inhabit their time and place.

On the last day of high school in 1976, in a suburb of Austin, Texas, the juniors of Lee High School assume their reign as the new senior class by subjecting the incoming freshmen to the same humiliating — and sometimes brutal — rites of passage they endured four years earlier. Freshman boys are hunted and mercilessly swatted with thick wooden paddles by their aggressively macho elders, while the incoming girls deemed most promising are subjected to sexually degrading insults by their upperclasswomen. When the hazing's over, the partying begins, and Freshmen Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) and Sabrina (Christine Hinojosa) are invited to cruise with the newly anointed rulers of the school through a night of drinking, mischief, drugs and hormones.

Dazed and Confused too easily slips into the genre of raucous, drug-filled, good-old-days, coming-of-age pictures to receive the credit it deserves as a mature and complicated dissection of the peer pressures and rebellious aimlessness of youth. On its sleeve, the movie is swift and funny, filled with hi-jinks, the best of the period's party rock music, and lots of teens engaging in controlled substances and talking about (yet never actually having) sex. But it's underneath this buoyant and light-hearted veneer that writer-director Richard Linklater subtly and meaningfully examines this culture and how it affects his characters.

The cruel hazing rituals employed by the seniors are rough vehicles of acceptance, rejection, control and release — manifestations of the greater pressures felt by these teenagers at the paradoxical age where everything is both certain and uncertain, and the adults who assume authority over them engage in more subtle versions of the same tactics. The freshmen subjects are, through these initiation rites, being transformed from innocents into players, learning the rules of engagement for post-pubescent combat (most of which is psychological) and, later, adulthood.

Randall "Pink" Floyd (Jason London), uncomfortably shouldered with the expectation of quarterbacking the school's varsity football team to success the next fall, is ordered by his coaches to sign a pledge against using drugs. He stubbornly rejects this pressure by hanging with a rowdy group of pot-smokers. When confronted by his equally rowdy teammates, Floyd (half-)soberly laments, "If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself." Mitch is Floyd-in-progress: a star pitcher who, despite his youth, effortlessly meshes with the older kids, and looks forward, wide-eyed, to the same high school experience that has left Floyd jaded and tuning out.

The future of the Mitch-Floyd continuum is Wooderson (a sublime debut by Matthew McConaughey), a former football-hero a few years out of high school — in age only. His carefree demeanor (a desperate cling to adolescence?) appeals to Floyd — and, in turn, Mitch — even though his realization in adulthood is ultimately uninspiring. Linklater is carefully vague about this evolution, leaving provocative questions marks where other filmmakers might have forced sterile messages about the glory of rebellion or the sad road to nowhere. Floyd sees his own resistance to authority as a victory, but if Wooderson redux is the outcome, is this just indulgent instant-gratification with negative long term consequences? As the movie's unusual and stunning final shot conveys, Floyd's view down the road is shallow, and what lies beyond even the small hills ahead is barely a concern.

The beautiful success of Dazed and Confused is how Linklater presents it all with a touch so light, free-spirited and humorous, the gravity is hardly felt. Instead of looking in on this assembly of searching and lost youth from the ponderous point-of-view of adulthood, he looks at it from the inside-out. Unlike his follow-up film Suburbia, none of the teens in Dazed and Confused try to sort out their lives in pretentious, self-aware monologue. As teens, their self-perception is naturally distorted. To paraphrase Francis Ford Coppola, Dazed and Confused isn't about high school. It is high school. Nobody (save Adam Goldberg, in a hilarious and moving performance) dwells on their problems to excess. There's a big party going on. They'd rather grab a beer and tune out.

The young ensemble cast is terrific: London, Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, Sasha Jenson, Rory Cochrane, Marissa Ribisi, Michelle Burke, Cole Hauser, Joey Lauren Adams, Milla Jovovich, as well as memorable early turns by Ben Affleck and Parker Posey as two seniors a wee overzealous in hazing the newbies. What's surprising is that more of these appealing young actors haven't become more familiar over the last decade.

*          *          *

Those not already addled by intoxicants may feel dazed and a bit confused by the variety of DVD editions of this movie. This Criterion Collection release of Dazed and Confused is the third release (so far), following Universal's early barebones release and 2004 "Flashback Edition," which included a smattering of extras and 1970s-themed supplements, few of which are included here. This two-disc Criterion release includes a new high-definition digital anamorphic transfer (1.85:1), supervised by Linklater and cinematographer Lee Daniel, and both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mixes. The feature is accompanied on Disc One by an engaging Linklater commentary, 25 minutes deleted scenes (10 more minutes than featured on the "Flashback Edition"), and the original trailer.

Disc Two features the fine new 50-minute documentary "Making Dazed," which includes lots of cast footage and extensive coverage of the movie's difficult straddling of the indie/studio line, and 23 minutes of audition footage (including London reading for Rapp's role, but, unfortunately, does not include any of the many now-famous actors who did not get cast). This disc's "Beer Bust at the Moon Tower" section includes an additional two hours of material than can be watched via an index or randomized. This group of extras includes 40 minutes of fairly dull "character interviews" (not in-character) as the actors prepare during rehearsals, 47 minutes of additional cast-and-crew interviews at various stages of production, and a half-hour of "behind-the-scenes" footage, which includes just a few minutes from the movie's 10-year reunion party. The set also comes with a 72-page book featuring essays, character profiles, memories of the film from cast and crew, plus a fold-out poster featuring the original poster art.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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