Richard Linklater’s graduating class for his breakout 1993 hit – now rereleased for its 30th anniversary – featured baby-faced high-schoolers Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich, Rory Cochrane, Cole Hauser and Adam Goldberg. Then there is Matthew McConaughey, who does not look all that much different from the way he does now, playing the older guy with a dodgy pudding bowl hairstyle and a pack of cigarettes stuffed into one of his T-shirt sleeves, creepily hanging out with kids from the school he is supposed to have left some years ago.
This is a film which drew on Altman’s Nashville – like that movie, this is set during the bicentennial of 1976, and is now nearer in time to that year than to 2023 – and Lucas’s American Graffiti. It features kids in Austin, Texas whoopingly celebrating their freedom at the beginning of summer to Alice Cooper’s School’s Out. The junior high graduates are allowed to be “hazed” – or brutally bullied – by the grotesquely unpleasant older kids, led by O’Bannion (Affleck); these horrible jerks “paddle” the younger kids by hitting their behinds with what look like specially designed cricket bats. This dysfunctional abuse is deeply ingrained, more unpleasant than anything in Lindsay Anderson’s If…, and every time I see this film I am baffled at how normalised it all is. O’Bannion is to get his Carrie-style comeuppance, but I can’t help thinking he deserves something more.
Dazed and Confused plays out to the madeleine-jolts of classic mainstream rock: Aerosmith, Dr John, Peter Frampton, War, Black Sabbath, Kiss and Foghat – though weirdly not Led Zeppelin performing Dazed and Confused. The characters don’t do much other than cruise around in their cars, smoke weed and show up at parties at night having ruefully endured the ritual humiliation of hazing during the day (although the girls have it easier in this regard than the boys). Boys and girls make out (but there’s no actual sex).
You might watch this film and its characters partying their way through this one-crazy-night event, wondering if there is going to be a coming-of-age life lesson about the importance of friendship. That doesn’t really arrive, although star quarterback Randall Floyd (Jason London) does refuse to sign the team’s McCarthyite pledge to avoid drink and drugs, even if he doesn’t especially question the lunkheaded macho ethos that governs their every waking moment. The movie’s star is the coolly charismatic Wiley Wiggins, playing young Mitch Kramer; Wiggins would go on to star in Linklater’s rotoscope animation Waking Life.
It’s a strange film in many ways, affectless and directionless, coolly refusing the usual dramatic beats and climactic moments, and as unreflective as MOR rock. It was a style Linklater revisited for his 2016 comedy Everybody Wants Some!!, which effectively showed the same kind of people, only a little more grownup and in college. Linklater showed a masterly control that was as easy as breathing.
• Dazed and Confused is released on 15 September in UK cinemas