Dazed and Confused says a lot more than you think
The first time I saw Dazed and Confused I was entirely dissatisfied. I began the film with extremely high hopes and finished it with the thought, ‘wait, that was it?’ The entire plot (if you could call it that) was a rotation of smoking weed, beating up freshman, and hooking up, (which is actually not too far off what happens in real high school, but normally I expect a bit more out of movies). I didn’t see any development, I didn’t see any progression, no climax, no nothing. I settled at the fact that the only reason people liked this movie is because of Matthew McConaughey (which, like ok, I can relate to that). Dazed and Confused was one of those movies that I checked off my list and never thought of again.
It wasn’t until I realized that Richard Linklater directed it that I started to rethink it. I’m a big fan of The Before Trilogy, Linklater’s three films about Jesse and Céine, two strangers that meet on a train and wander the streets of Vienna together on a whim. The premise is interesting in itself, but what struck me about the film was the extensive and philosophical conversation between the two strangers. Finding themselves on the streets of a city they don’t know, with a person they’ve just met, they have no other choice but to lean into the discomfort and speak—about anything, everything, something. The movie can be seen as slow for this reason; the majority of the film is a conversation—not much plot, not much progression, just humanity, in its discomfort and connection. But that’s what I loved about it.
Realizing that Linklater directed Dazed, I recognized that I might have read the film wrong. I love the honesty in The Before Trilogy. I love that it’s not trying to be something humanity isn't. I love that even though meeting a stranger on a train and falling in love is a one in a million chance, this film makes it feel a little less impossible. The beauty of a Linklater movie is in it’s candor, in its rawness. A Linklater movie isn’t one that will make you jump out of your seat, but a Linklater movie is one that will make you feel something and hold onto it for weeks after—maybe years after. So maybe Dazed wasn't as inconclusive and pointless as I remembered. Maybe it wasn’t just a fun movie starring Matthew McConaughey, maybe it said something.
I decided I should revisit it and give it a second chance. I wanted to like it, believe me. I just wasn’t sure if I could ever really love it. Sure, the cinematography was fun, and there’s nothing like Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion”. But I didn’t know if I could love a movie that didn’t really mean anything—I hadn’t felt anything yet.
When watching it for the second time, I was much more attentive. I was ready to see why Linklater made this film, and I looked at it through a different lens. In the beginning, I felt the same, ok hazing, yes, very fun and cool. I watched on to see the parties, the smoking, the music, Matthew McConaughey, etc, etc, but it hit me later on. As I watched the teens run around on the football field, a bit delirious at this point in the morning, having fun, messing around, I knew what I had missed. It made so much sense to me.
I missed the rebellion and how real it was. The high school football team was required to sign a contract prohibiting alcohol, drugs, and illegal activity. Randall, star player and protagonist, took the whole film to decide whether or not to sign it. In the end, he opts to throw the crumpled contract at the coach saying, “I might play ball, but I will never sign this”. This isn’t just Randall (“Pink”) being stubborn and giving up a future for drugs and alcohol. It isn’t that surface level at all. Linklater is reminding us what it’s like to be rebellious. He’s reminding us what it’s like to push back against anyone who tries to tell you what to do. He’s reminding us what it’s like to want nothing more than to be independent. He’s reminding us what it’s like to do everything to be free. Authority will always be there. And it will always push us. Sometimes I wish it didn’t have to be that way, but I think it’s a part of youth to push back. Maybe without authority, being young wouldn’t be such a challenge. Maybe being young wouldn’t be such a fight. A fight that we absolutely love to battle.
I missed the angst. The angst that I have, that you have. The teen angst that isn’t always valid in the world, but it’s valid to us. As they all sat around, talking about life and high school, Simone asks why Pink acts so oppressed about the contract. He kept saying he didn’t want to give in just yet. He didn’t want to look back and see high school as the best years of his life. He wanted to be free—for as long as he could. Maybe he wasn’t oppressed. But that oppression he feels is the angst we all feel. It’s the stress of being a teenager and wanting to have fun when so many people are telling you to work harder. It’s the angst of wanting to be free when so many people are waiting to be pleased. Linklater doesn’t underestimate that angst. Because it’s real. And it may not seem important to adults, but it’s real to us. Teen angst isn’t just a theme in a coming of age novel—it’s something that we feel with as much intensity as any other emotion. This film is almost an ode to that. Linklater is telling us that we’re allowed to feel how we feel. Our feelings are valid.
I missed the bold companionship. I’ve realized as a high schooler how important camaraderie is. How essential friendship is to wellbeing, how necessary it is to have someone to call. I think I overlooked the friendship in this film. Because in the beginning I saw it as superficial. I saw hazing and mocking, joking around, sarcasm. I saw it all as meaningless. I forgot how much it actually means for a senior to invite a freshman to party with them. I looked over the simple high school-ish actions that seemed so insignificant; I forgot that they might have made someone feel really special. And I ignored the love that shows in sticking up for a friend. When Pink stands in front of his coach, who calls his friends losers with nothing to lose, he says “You know coach, I’ve got to get going. Me and my loser friends, you know, we’ve got to go get Aerosmith tickets. Top priority of the summer.” I never saw the absolute love, loyalty, and boldness those few words held.
After some revisiting with an open mind, I realized that this film isn’t just about messing around. It’s not just about hazing, it’s not just about smoking. It’s not just a movie where teenagers do teenager things. It’s about being young and loving being young. It’s about wanting to get out while also wanting to enjoy it all now. It’s about being on the border of youth and adulthood, and not knowing which direction to go yet. This film is a love letter to youth and its fire. It’s a memory of what it’s like to feel alive and feel free. It’s an ode to the times when getting Aerosmith tickets were ‘the top priority of the summer’. It’s about fighting back against everything, so you can just be something—something you decide. It’s about not knowing what you want to do yet, but having the absolute best time while you figure it out. It’s about adolescence and teendom and youth and fun and rebellion and growing and curiosity and confusion and life and love.
“Man it's the same bullshit they tried to pull in my day. Ya know, if it ain't that piece of paper, it's some other choice they're gonna try to make for you. You got to do what Randall "Pink" Floyd wants to do, man. And let me tell you this; 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.”
- Matthew McConaughey, Dazed and Confused