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Richard Linklater's slice of 70's teen life movie holds a special place in my heart. I watched it when I was around the same age as the freshmen characters and identified with a lot of their mentality. Especially the character of Mitch. Though I was a lot more nervous and socially awkward than Mitch turned out to be in the movie, I saw myself in him as I had an older brother who was a senior when I was a freshman.
But it isn't my personal identification with the movie that makes me love it. It exists in that special subgenre of film where that tells the "one night teen" movie. American Graffiti came before it, Superbad and Can't Hardly Wait would come after. But Dazed and Confused is the bar that was set for this niche narrative structure.
The characters are incredibly authentic. Even when they are a little over the top like Ben Affleck's hot-headed O'Bannion, the characters still manage to be people that most of us went to high school with or have encountered in our lives. And O'Bannion is a great foil for the obnoxious group of freshmen led by Carl. Their subplot is entertaining and made even better by the fact that it isn't necessarily resolved. There's a comeuppance for O'Bannion but he doesn't have a redemptive arc or any personal growth because that's not what the movie is about for the characters.
It's about this moment in their lives and how they perceive where they are in the moment. Whether its Carl putting up a front and dismissing the rec center party in favor of seeking high school social pursuits, or Mike internalizing his encounter with Nicky Katt's character to the point of planning out how he'd fight him and then executing that plan, Dazed and Confused is all about the moment these characters are living in and it gives us an almost voyeuristic view of it.
The movie's biggest arc is Floyd's debate over whether or not he is going to sign a pledge his football coach gave him saying that he'd abstain from drugs and alcohol in the coming school year. Floyd's decision is important to him because he's at a crossroads. He's about to start his final year of high school and is torn between using it for work or leisure. It's expressed wonderfully by Cynthia in a scene where she, Mike, and Tony are discussing the merits of aimlessly driving around, doing nothing. They decide to go to the party after she says "I'd like to quit thinking of the present, like right now, as some minor, insignificant preamble to somethin' else." That and the more iconic "Just keep livin, man. L-I-V-I-N" line spouted by Wooderson, sum up the movie and Floyd's choice so well.
Despite what his teammates and coaches think, Pink's desire to quit football and enjoy his last year of high school with his "loser" friends isn't about rebelling against authoritative coaches. It's about rebelling against the institutions of high school and the expectation to do great. It's obviously much more subdued than in a movie like Friday Night Lights, but it's there and the movie depicts the teenagers as exercising what freedom they have at this pivotal time. And Floyd's choice comes down to whether he wants to experience more of that freedom or "get in line" for his team.
I love Dazed and Confused for its rich, entertaining characters and surprising depth it has for them.