Director: Richard Linklater
Screenplay: Richard Linklater
Producers: Richard Linklater, Sean Daniel, James Jacks
Starring: Jason London, Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Michelle Burke, Wiley Wiggins, Adam Goldberg
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 102 mins

When I first watched Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused I was fresh out of school and I missed it. Frightened of the world I now had to face alone and longing for the structure of full-time education and the friends I got to see every day, I consumed as many High School and Teen films as I could get my hands on. I remember feeling a tantalising vicarious thrill as I watched this diverse range of types wandering the school corridors and partying in the woods. When the opportunity arose to review Criterion’s new edition of Dazed and Confused I jumped at the chance but as I awaited its arrival I wondered whether I would love it as much as I used to. After all, a lot has happened since my early 2000s wilderness years: I got married, I became a Dad, I began to feel happier and more settled. And suddenly the idea of reliving my school days or getting off my face at a party (I also gave up alcohol in that interim period) no longer appealed to me. In fact, the whole idea felt slightly hellish to me now. Fortunately, from this distant standpoint, I feel like I now understand the film better than I ever did. Dazed and Confused is definitely a blast to watch but few of the characters are actually having a blast in their everyday lives. Nights like the one it depicts are brief islands in a sea of confusion and even these interludes are riddled with neuroses and moments of painful self-discovery. Despite its sunny exterior and killer soundtrack, it isn’t a mere exercise in nostalgia but an exploration of the struggles growing up presents to various groups and how every generation thinks that their own time sucks while it’s actually happening.

Dazed and Confused was pitched as a 1970s equivalent of George Lucas’s tribute to early 60s Rock ‘n’ Roll culture American Graffiti and this idea coupled with the cult success of Linklater’s earlier independent film Slacker helped secure some studio backing from Universal. The blend of indie and studio sensibilities made the production a bumpier ride than Slacker had been but Linklater was able to recruit many members of his Slacker crew which helped maintain that punky spirit that distinguishes Dazed and Confused from glossier Hollywood fare. Linklater also wanted to work with a cast of unknowns, which gave the film a heightened sense of realism. In retrospect, it’s interesting to spot the cast members who broke out as stars (Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey) as well as those who became recognisable indie names or supporting players, like Joey Lauren Adams, Rory Cochrane and Adam Goldberg. The cast are all memorable in their roles, with Jason London’s Pink providing a solidly normal central focus around which the weirdos can orbit: Cochrane’s perma-stoned philosopher, Affleck’s rage-filled jerk, Posey’s sneery mean girl. McConaughey’s sleazy older guy who still hangs around the teens became the breakout performance, with Linklater adding new material in order to use him more, but for me the standouts are Goldberg, Anthony Rapp and Marissa Ribisi as a group of nerds sampling the party lifestyle, Sasha Jenson as an obnoxious macho class clown and Wiley Wiggins as the freshman who begins the film desperately trying to evade a violent ritual and ends it having had the best night of his life hanging out with the older kids.

I was born in the 80s and mostly grew up in the 90s listening to music made in the 60s. The 70s was very much a nostalgia blindspot for me when I first watched Dazed and Confused. Given my eventual love of 70s cinema, the era’s aesthetic has grown on me and it’s fun to see it reproduced here with both a retrospective appreciation and a muted sense of reality. Dazed and Confused isn’t one of those nostalgia-hungry productions that tries to cram in every cultural touchstone of its era for a cheap rush of recognition. You don’t have to have any real connection to the era depicted here to have an understanding of what Linklater is putting across. This is more a film about the moment-to-moment experience of being a teenager, of piecing together an identity and of trying to break free from the regulations of the previous generations. One character here talks about how the 70s obviously sucks, a sobering moment in a film that is sure to trigger a longing in some viewers. The cogent point Dazed and Confused implicitly makes is that that longing is probably for their youth rather than the era they have erroneously romanticised.

The early portion of Richard Linklater’s career was largely defined by films featuring young people and set across a 24 hour period or less. His official debut Slacker spent small allotted periods of time with each of its subjects before ditching them altogether, while the subsequent Before Sunrise zeroed in on just two protagonists. By contrast, Dazed and Confused feels like the most elaborate and ambitious of the three, setting up a wide range of characters across a series of vignettes and then proceeding to pull them all together and weave them in and out of each other’s lives, sometimes with significant results and sometimes not. It’s a loose but hugely satisfying approach, with some stories reaching endings of sorts and others left dangling. It’s as if the viewers themselves become students at the same high school, tuned in to the activities of certain groups and only dimly aware of what’s happening with others. Linklater creates a sprawling canvas that approximates a version of that hanging out vibe that was popular in indie films of the 90s but injects it with a greater thematic resonance than was found in the deliberately trivial banalities of Clerks. Dazed and Confused is concerned with similar minutiae but it recognises greater subtextual significances and universal themes amongst the detritus of daily drudgery. That’s what helps it work equally well for those who remember the 70s and those who don’t, for those who are living through those teenage years and for those who have left them long behind.

Dazed and Confused is released by Criterion on 4K UHD and Blu-Ray on 6 May 2024. The special features are superbly judged in keeping with the hanging out vibe of the film. The excellent 50 minute Making “Dazed” documentary by Kahane Cooperman uses footage from the time the film was made and from a decade later at a reunion event that shows how swift and huge the reaction to the film was. Linklater himself delivers an enjoyable and informative audio commentary, and there are hours of great footage from auditions and interviews that really flesh out the excitement of putting the film together.

The full list of special features is as follows:

• Audio commentary by Richard Linklater
• Making “Dazed,” a documentary by Kahane Cooperman
• Rare on-set interviews and behind-the-scenes footage
• Footage from the ten-year-anniversary celebration

• Audition footage and deleted scenes
• Trailer
• English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
• PLUS: Essays by critics Kent Jones, Jim DeRogatis, and Chuck Klosterman; reprinted recollections of the filming from cast and crew; and character profiles from the Dazed and Confused companion book; as well as the original film poster by Frank Kozik

Where to watch Dazed and Confused
Dazed and Confused
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