What struck me about Dazed and Confused the first time I watched it was how unfunny it was or maybe how comparatively unfunny it was.
When you consider how funny the films that influenced Dazed (like Fast Times at Ridgemont High) are and how funny the movies it influenced (like Superbad) are Dazed is sort of lacking in terms of laughs. Sure there’s some quotable lines and a few memorable comic moments, but most of the comedy is situational.There are no big gags in the movie. All the humor is natural and comes organically from the characters. It took me three viewings of the film to realize that Linklater isn’t really concerned with making the audience laugh. He’s concerned with the characters.
Take the iconic freshmen hazing scenes that start off as amusing but get increasingly brutal. At first we laugh along with the Seniors who perpetrate these absurd acts of initiation. But Linklater uppercuts this humor with a touch of bittersweetness. He shows us how Mitch feels on the losing end of these hazing rituals. And we understand the physical and emotional pain he and Sabrina feel as they’re subjected to such senseless brutality.
This isn’t the only moment in the film where the director makes quick tonal U-turn. At first we laugh at Mike, one of the film’s token intellectuals, who plans to shed his reputation as a “little ineffectual nothing” by fighting the town badass, Clint. But as soon as Mike goes through with his plan, the tone shifts. As Mike gets his ass handed to him, we feel the weight of every punch. And it hurts.
There are a few instances when a potentially hilarious scene is cut short and the film just kind of moves on to the next scene. Take the revenge scene where the freshmen dump paint on the sadistic bully, O’Bannion. Or when Pink and the guys are caught smashing mailboxes and get chased by an old man with a gun. Or when Carl’s mom pulls a shotgun on O’Bannion. These scenes could easily be bigger, funnier, and more farcical. But instead the movie just lets them play out and moves on to the next scene.
Dazed and Confused was heavily marketed as a 70s period piece so I was expecting a teen movie seeped in 70s nostalgia. But despite a few self aware moments, the film never calls attention to its setting. For the most part it accomplishes Linklater’s goal to make a period piece that feels like it was made during the period its set in. Never have I encountered a period film with a period setting so inconsequential to the film yet so important to the plot. What I mean by that is that Dazed probably could’t take place in any other decade. Perhaps no other generation of teenagers enjoyed this kind of freedom. The drinking age was eighteen, pot was easy to come by, and the only way to find your friends was to drive around and look for them. Honestly, can you imagine a modern day version of this movie where the characters found out about the party at the Moon Tower via group chat? Yet the movie isn’t so focused on what it meant to be a teenager in the 1970’s. It’s about what it means to be a teenager in any decade.
I think Dazed and Confused portrays growing up more accurately than almost any other film I’ve seen and here’s why.
Coming of age films have always struggled with the following question: "What does growing up look like?”. Is there any authentic way to show a character come of age without “Boyhood-ing” it? It’s process that’s so universal yet so abstract. Filmmakers typically settle for the classic Hollywood model of storytelling, wherein the protagonist is faced with a problem, forced to solve said problem, and learns something about him or herself by the end. In a Coming of age film, the obstacle that the protagonist must face can be: a pregnancy, a big school dance, moving to a new school, a big crush, losing one’s virginity, scoring alcohol, evil teachers, and clique tensions. The list goes on and on.
I’m not saying that there’s anything inherently wrong with movies like The Breakfast Club, American Pie, Juno, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Mean Girls, 10 Things I Hate About You, Sixteen Candles, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Fault in Our Stars, or Dead Poets Society. But I think they all get something fundamentally wrong about growing up. They’re all predicated on the idea that teens don’t grow up in everyday life, that kids have to be pushed out of their comfort zones in order to mature, that coming of age is somehow separate from the rest of teenage life.
The films I listed above all show teenagers doing what they’re known to do, that being hanging out, drinking, partying, etc. But these aren’t the scenes where the big moments of catharsis take place. They’re just scenes of filler, usually played for laughs. The big moments that account for the movie’s depth take place elsewhere in scenes pulled from the screenwriters’ imaginations rather than their actual memories from high school. They can’t seem to grasp that kids in real life grow up, however minutely, during these arbitrary, seemingly pointless activities. Of course these incidental epiphanies that take place whilst driving around, killing time, and shooting the shit aren’t particularly cinematic.It’s easier to have teenage protagonists learn the facts of life during tearful confrontations, melodramatic school dances, and grand romantic gestures. And that’s a shame, because although scenes like these make for good drama they bear little to no resemblance to actual teenage life.
Dazed and Confused is a movie about these incidental epiphanies. We watch as the main characters drink, party, paddle, smoke, and cruise their way through the last day of school. And somewhere along the way they grow up. But this isn’t the type of growing up I described above. It’s organic, resulting naturally from the characters just like the comedy. We can’t see the fingerprints of the screenwriter all over it. In Dazed the growth is subtle, quiet, and dare I say: authentic. Its so subtle that its easy to miss upon first viewing and the second viewing for that matter. But not in a pretentious, subliminal message sort of way. The movie’s cathartic moments are sort of hidden in plain sight. They sneak in in between the non-stop parade of teenage revelry and adolescent aimlessness, making them easy to miss.
But Richard Linklater knows how to communicate a character’s state of mind without spelling it out for us. Sometimes he’ll use slow motion, albeit more subtly than most directors. We see this in the film’s most overt “moment of clarity” in which Pink is considering the wisdom of Wooderson and Don on the football field. Other times the camera will linger on a character longer than it normally would. This leaves us to consider what this moment means to them. Or he’ll heighten a scene, making it feel larger than life to show us how a specific character perceives it. And sometimes he just picks the perfect song to evoke the very specific feeling of the entire ensemble.
Scenes like this demystify the process of growing up. It’s not quite as esoteric and intangible as we might think. It just sort of sneaks up on us when we’re not expecting it . It’s not like the characters are forever changed by these twenty four hours, but we do get a sense that they’ve changed in some minuscule way. And if that isn’t growing up then I don’t know what is.
Teen movies have this annoying preoccupation with being monumental. They all feel the need to build up some sense of importance around the events they're portraying. Take a movie like The Breakfast Club which aggrandizes the nine hours it chronicles into the most pivotal day of its characters’ lives. Or take American Graffiti, a film that is widely accepted as Dazed’s predecessor, but milks “the last night of innocence” angle and ends with a melodramatic “where are they now?” ending. Dazed and Confused has the courage to be unmonumental. And that’s what makes it so brilliant, because being a teenager is for the most part, pretty unmonumental.
But what artists like Linklater know and every adult realizes as they remember their teenage years is that: a lot happens while you’re doing nothing, including growing up.
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