“I get older, but they stay the same age.”

#98 – Dazed and Confused – Richard Linklater – 1993

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One of the most interesting types of films around is the ensemble film. There are certain stories that masquerade as ensembles (I’m looking at you Lord of the Rings) but still have a standard protagonist and antagonist. A real ensemble film has none of that. Usually it doesn’t even have character arcs and never offers real conclusions to man of the problems presented within. These films tread on the balance of realism and formalism by giving an “honest view” of the world. Some of the most well-renowned of this style are George Lucas’s American Grafiti, Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Richard Curtis’s Love Actually. My personal favourite though is Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, a film that walks the line between realism and extravagance, comedy and drama, and offers an objective view of the high school experience.

The premise of this film is simple. It’s the last day of school in the summer of 1976 and all of the High School kids are celebrating. Well, not all of them, the incoming group of freshman students are going to be hazed to hell and back by the incoming seniors and some of the football players are not too happy about a pledge their coach is making them sign concerning drug use. Those are the two major plots of the film and they reveal our large cast of “main characters.” Randall “Pink” Floyd is the football captain who is conflicted about signing the pledge, Mitch Kramer is one of the freshman boys being hunted by the seniors, and Fred O’Bannon is the cruelest of the seniors on the hazing spree. The best part about this film though is that Linklater doesn’t weight it down with their stories. They may get the most screen time, but the film is all about the secondary characters who reveal, either subtly or explicitly, the truth about highschool.

“I’ll be damned if I ever start calling this the best time of my life,” is a line spoken by Randall at one point. Remembering that he is the star quarterback of the football team and seeing his character being a wholly likeable guy, this line opens up the idea that a person’s circumstance in life is not an accurate way to discern neither their feelings nor their personality. Mitch Kramer and his sister Jodi give us the sibling relationship with no hint of cliché. Rory Chochrane, Milla Jovovich, and Shawn Andrews show how stoners can be standing on the edge of letting their life slip away from them while still holding a wholly optimistic outlook. Sasha Jenson gives us the best transformative character in that he seems to be a class clown crossed with a jock, but reveals a truly wise and introspective perspective on his own situation. We have characters played by Marissa Ribisi, Anthony Rapp and Adam Goldberg who reflect on the hazing, the drinking and drugs, and the generational mindset (of hating your place in life) that plagues every generation it passes.

The scene stealer of this film though is Matthew McConaughey. One of the reasons I prefer this film to Fast Times is that this performance is a) a far better one b) deeply rooted in the themes of the film and c) doesn’t call attention away from other stories (instead he enhances them). He is a not-so-recently graduated resident of the town and is still very associated with the highschoolers years younger than him. He may be best remembered for the line “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age,” but the true resonance of that line is his symbolic position in the film. He gets older, but he stays with those same people, he flirts with the same girls year after years. He gets older but he stays in exactly the same place.

There are plenty of other things to be said about Dazed and Confused, particularly about the music it uses and the strategic placement of violence, but those aren’t the reason that this film places at number 98 on my top 100. It’s that, like The Virgin Suicides, it takes a worldly view of teenagedom. Not a universal one; it can’t be stressed enough that this is a very white-centric film and that it could be portrays as just being “rich white people problems.” But a worldly view: one that encompasses the feeling of loneliness that most people will feel at one point or another in their life.  It’s a film that portrays the world it sees honestly, and that is enough to make me love it.

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