American Graffiti (1973) celebrated the teenage years of the first set of baby boomers. Arguably, for those of us born in the middle to late end of the baby boom generation, Dazed and Confused (1993) is our American Graffiti. While not nearly as good as American Graffiti, for those of us born in the late 1950s and early 1960s Dazed and Confused will doubtlessly resurrect some adolescent feelings. If you are like me, the memories will be more painful than nostalgic. If you laugh more than cringe, maybe part of you never quite grew up.
There is no question that the 1970s were a weird decade. Dazed and Confused chronicles a set of rising seniors on the last day of school in 1976. The nation’s bicentennial was a month away. The Vietnam War had recently come to an inglorious end. We were on the tail end of the hippie generation. By the mid 1970s, society had thrown up its hands in surrender. Drug use was common among my generation, although smoking marijuana tended to be as far as we would go. In most states, you could buy beer at age eighteen, but even if you were not quite eighteen, there were no Mothers Against Drunk Drivers to worry about. It was not that difficult for a minor to purchase either beer or cigarettes. Even sex was not that hard to acquire. If a pregnancy occurred, abortions were readily obtainable, although you might have had to cross state lines. AIDS did not yet exist, so any social disease with the exception of genital herpes, which was relatively rare, could be cured with antibiotics. By default, we emulated our older siblings. As a class, we were inclined to fool around, take chances and be reckless. We were also a lost generation. The hippie movement was dying out. Ronald Reagan had yet to capture our imagination. Gerald Ford was our president. Our hair tended to be long, washed infrequently and uncut. Our clothes tended to be made of polyester and not to match. With utter authenticity, Dazed and Confused chronicles us at this time.
Director and Writer Richard Linklater was one of the few of us taking detailed notes during this time. The result was this 1993 movie. Watching Dazed and Confused is a bit like looking at pornography. That is not to say that Dazed and Confused is pornographic, although it has an R rating. (There is no nudity in the movie.) Just as pornography does not hide the warts and pimples on its models, neither does Dazed and Confused bother to present a false impression of our high school years. That is why it is difficult not to both cringe and laugh at the same time. You may find yourself a bit like me, wanting to watch it between the cracks in your fingers, desperately hoping it was not quite as bad as it was in this movie, but also knowing that yeah, it was that bad.
My high school was Seabreeze Senior High School in Daytona Beach, Florida. Unlike the students in this unnamed city, my classmates were generally too high on something to be cruel. These rising seniors though are downright cruel. On the last day of school, the guys hang out in front of the local middle school, ready to harass the rising freshmen when school lets out. They literally capture them as they exit the school and spank their hinnies with large wooden paddles. The women were not much better. They cover the rising freshmen girls with ketchup, mustard and kitty litter and force them to say humiliating things to the seniors. Why do they do it? It is a tradition. They suffered the same humiliation four years earlier, so of course they have to mete it out.
If you are seventeen going on eighteen in 1976 the world is your sandbox. Drugs and beer are easy to acquire. The parents for the most part look the other way. The girls are mostly easy lays. You do stupid and reckless things; you are quick to anger. You knock over mailboxes for fun. Yet underneath all this reckless behavior is a teen wanting to sober up but not sure how to keep the hormones in check.
Richard Linklater captures this world excruciatingly well. His movie is not really art, so much as a dispassionate look at twenty-four hours in the life of teenagers in late May 1976. From someone who grew up in this environment I can say that Dazed and Confused feels entirely authentic. There is not a false note in the whole movie. These were our teenage years with all their warts and pimples. That is why it is hard not to cringe. It is also okay, if you can muster it, to chuckle along from time to time.
With two exceptions, the cast is mostly a bunch of no names. Ben Afflack plays Fred O’Bannion, one of the more obnoxious teenagers. Matthew McConaughey plays David Wooderson, a young man who graduated some years earlier but cannot seem to escape the allure of his high school youth. I identified with a trio of nerds who for some reason choose to hang out with this bunch. Anthony Rapp, who starred in Rent both on Broadway and on film, plays Tony Olson, one of the few with his head together.
There is virtually nothing in the way of plot in this movie. It is just a tiny slice of time from May 1976, obviously heavily drawn from Linklater’s real life experiences and flawlessly rendered in all its garishness. Those of you my age who feel twinges of nostalgia for your high school years might want to see this movie, just so you remember what it was really like. Your current life in your extremely late 40s and early 50s should look quite a bit better than the mess you likely were back then.
I will leave this movie unrated. It is not high art but it is a faithful restatement of our lives and times back then.
Thank goodness, those days are gone.