‘Dazed and Confused’: The Iconic Teen Drama Still Relevant 25 Years On

James McMahon

Dazed and Confused, 25 years old this week, is a film about everything… and nothing.

“The drama is so low-key,” once said director Richard Linklater of his 1993 creation, his second movie within a filmography that also includes School Of Rock (2003) and Boyhood (2014).

“I don’t remember teenage being that dramatic,” he continued. “I remember just trying to go with the flow, socialize, fit in and be cool. The stakes were really low. To get Aerosmith tickets or not? That’s a big thing. It was really rare when the star-crossed lovers from the opposite side of the tracks and the girl gets pregnant and there’s a car crash and somebody dies. That didn’t really happen much. But riding around and trying to look for something to do with the music cranked up, now that happened a lot!”

Dazed and Confused is the best movie ever made about being a teenager, set and made in the western world at least. It’s a story told in May 1976 on the last day of term at Lee High School, deep in the suburbs of Austin, Texas. It’s a film just as concerned with the era in which it was released as it is the one in which it is set. Much of this is due to the parallels of 1970s’ counterculture with that of the early 90s. The songs of Aerosmith, KISS and Black Sabbath that soundtrack the movie aren’t a million miles removed from the sounds and aesthetics of the latter era’s big rock acts, like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Some of the resonance is to do with key players within the cast being synonymous with 90s’ movie making – Parker Posey and Joey Lauren Adams even look like they could be members of Bikini Kill.

Timeless Themes

And then there’s the timeless nature of the themes that Linklater’s film covers. The movie plays a bit like a John Hughes movie in reverse. It’s always funny, or interesting, and the music selection is impeccably cool. But the sense of inertia present within — the lack of anything really happening at all — means that it’s the feeling the movie conveys that lingers longest after the credits roll. The doyen of American film criticism, Roger Ebert perhaps summed it up best when he described the movie as “art crossed with anthropology”. Listed among his 12 favourite movies ever by Quentin Tarantino in a 2002 Sight & Sound poll, it’s a film that aches with the terrifying realisation that maybe the best years of your life really aren’t that great at all.

The film was responsible for launching a host of now household names. Ben Affleck plays Fred O’Bannion, a violent bully, in training to be the violent bully he will most likely stay all his life. Matthew McConaughey is David Wooderson, aging local legend, stuck in a time loop, probably forever – in fact, he’s “been thinkin’ about getting back in school” because “that’s where all the girls are”. Milla Jovovich is Michelle Boroughs, who doesn’t really feature in the film all that much (despite featuring on the DVD sleeve due to her comparably high level of fame as a model and actor) due to Linklater cutting down her part, citing that her performance “didn’t really gel”. Strangely, Renée Zellweger features predominantly, although never ever speaking. Rejected for the role that went to Parker Posey, she begged Linklater to still have a part.

Indicting Western Culture

Nice 'tache, Matthew McConnaughey (left).

The film can be viewed as a terrifying takedown of western culture, as the eldest of the young characters toy with the power structures of the adulthood encroaching. A large segment of the film concerns older teenagers hazing younger ones – abuse would be a better word – often encouraged by the adults. The boys paddle the behinds of younger boys. They’re delirious in doing so. It’s their right. The girls make the younger girls pretend to be hotdogs, dousing them in ketchup and mustard as they ‘fry’ on the concrete (an actual hazing ritual that Linklater borrowed from his upbringing in Texas).

Within these rituals, the best and worst human traits are revealed. There’s your O’Bannions. Incidentally, it’s fascinating to think that before Affleck was cast, Vince Vaughn was also considered. “When you cast your bad guys, cast the funny, smart guy,” says Linklater. “Ben was the smartest guy”. But there’s also Randall ‘Pink’ Floyd, played by the impossibly handsome Jason London — the closest the movie has to a lead — who shows kindness and leniency in his treatment of the freshmen. But only enough to not draw attention to himself and find himself ostracised by his peers. This is a film about conformity, presented as one – via the clothes, the music, the celebration of the ‘sweet leaf’ – about non-nonconformity.

Seasoning of the Young

Ben Affleck pre-Batman days.

There was a ‘spiritual’ sequel to Dazed and Confused, the 2016 comedy Everybody Wants Some!!, again set in Texas, only this time in the early 1980s. Though we’ve been deprived of knowing exactly what happened to Dazed’s characters after the sun came up on that spring night in 1976, not knowing is what helps to keep the film relevant. Still, you’d hope some, like Mike Newhouse, played by Adam Goldberg, too smart and too funny to spend his days in suburbia rotting away, got out. Ditto Marissa Ribisi’s Cynthia Dunn, who sagely asks the question: “If we are all gonna die anyway, shouldn’t we be enjoying ourselves now? You know, I’d like to quit thinking of the present, like right now, as some minor insignificant preamble to something else…”

And then there’s McConaughey’s Wooderson. Getting older as the girls are getting younger, still stalking the same old haunts, becoming more pathetic with each year that passes, knowing – or at least too scared to try to make a future for himself – that this is the best it’s ever going to get for him.

“Let me tell you this,” he says, as if trying to convince himself of the words he’s about to say. “The older you do get, the more rules they’re gonna try to get you to follow. You just gotta keep livin’ man. L-I-V-I-N…”

Despite being a film that attempts to say nothing, even all these years later, Dazed and Confused is a film that’s says everything about the seasoning of the young.

James McMahon
James McMahon is a journalist from the north of England, though he currently lives in east London with his wife and Ramones records. He was formerly the editor of Kerrang! magazine for absolutely ages, and now writes for Vice, The Big Issue and The Observer. He likes Bigfoot, Xbox and crisps.