Dazed and Confused turns 30 this month. The film’s very dated in some ways, and not just because of shaggy hair length and retro-jeans. If it were made now it would almost certainly feature some queer high schoolers, and probably make some attempt to give at least one character who isn’t a white guy more screentime. But even stuck in the past, director Richard Linklater’s easy insistence that the kids are all right still feels remarkably relevant in a 2023 mired in authoritarian backlash and cramped neo-McCarthyite censorship.
The movie has more of a plot than Linklater’s debut, the stream-of-consciousness Slacker—but only barely. It’s the last day of school at Lee High in Austin, and the kids are looking forward to a big party that night and a big Aerosmith concert that summer. Star quarterback and rising senior Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London) doesn’t want to sign his coach’s no-drugs pledge. Asshole Fred O’Bannon (Ben Affleck) is repeating his senior year, which means he gets a chance to haze incoming freshman again by swatting them with a large paddle. He’s especially got his eye on Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), a pitching star whose sister Jodi (Michelle Burke) asked the seniors to go easy on him.
The kids drink, smoke and make out. Pink kisses a girl who isn’t his girlfriend Simone (Joey Lauren Adams) and then gets caught by the cops with illicit substances on the football field. Nerdy Mike Newhouse (Adam Goldberg) punches a guy who bullied him. Incoming freshman Sabrina Davis (Christin Hinojosa) refuses to let senior Darla Marks (Parker Posey) haze her when she’s flirting with Tony Olson (Anthony Rapp).
But nothing really happens to anyone. There are no long-term relationships broken or entered into. Pink’s coach is pissed, but doesn’t punish him, and Pink still isn’t sure if he’s going to return as quarterback next year. Darla cackles maniacally and promises retribution for Sabrina’s defiance, but she’s so drunk it’s not clear she’ll remember anything.
Nerdy Cynthia Dunn (Marissa Ribisi), who may or may not be getting together with semi-skeevy older dude David Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey) sums up the film’s ethos in a rambling conversation with nerdy Mike. “God, don't you ever feel like everything we do and everything we've been taught is just to service the future?” she says. “…I'd like to quit thinking of the present, like right now, as some minor insignificant preamble to something else.”
Young people—and not just young people—are told relentlessly in films (and not just in films) they should be focused on their career, finding true love, or winning the big game. But Linklater suspends all of that. In this movie, on this night, there aren’t any consequences and not even any real decisions. School’s out, summer hasn’t quite started, no one has to do anything. Even Mitch’s mom tells him he’s got a pass when he comes in drunk at dawn. Next time, maybe, she’ll punish him. But next time doesn’t have to come yet.
Dazed and Confused is too deliberately noncommittal to be revolutionary, or even political. But its gentleness towards its character’s transgressions feels, now, like a line in the sand. The coaches, the cops, and some of the kids too, like Fred and Darla. want to make everyone follow the rules and toe various arbitrary lines. Linklater, though, thinks everyone should have a chance to be who they are—or, like Mike briefly experimenting with being a tough guy, a chance to be who they aren’t.
Dazed and Confused imagines a world in which the policing, anxiety about the future, and the stern parent in the background, are all mostly turned off. It inhales and asks, “What if we didn’t have to figure it all out right now, man?” Three decades later, with the country in what seems like a perpetual puritan moral panic, that’s a question to think about.