DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993)
This is a sentimental and nostalgic comedy/melodrama about high school kids in Austin, Texas in the 1970’s trying to navigate the treacherous waters of teenage life. It’s a very hard movie to pitch because it’s a collection of small plots, but one of the most successful intertwining-subplot movies ever made. Freshmen try to escape and get revenge on the bullies that torment him (Ben Affleck in his first, and probably best performance as the worst of the male bullies and Parker Posey as the most brutal of the female bullies). Another teenager tries to decide if he wants to abandon his success as a football player for the freedom of weed-smoking hippie-ish life which feels more authentic to him. A trio of nerds tries to go to a cool party and fit in. A young girl deals with a womanizing older guy (Matthew Mcconaughey in one of his first performances and definitely his best).
This movie could not be more impressive to me. The writing is incredibly nuanced and complicated but with an unbelievable appearance of effortlessness. The movie feels so effortless that I imagine most people who watch it and love don’t even realize what a masterpiece of complicated writing it is. I tend to dislike “slice of life” movies that tell ten short intertwined plots rather than one main plot. Usually the plots are all pretty weak with very little effort to intertwine them meaningfully and I get the sense that they thought bouncing back and forth between a bunch of short plots would be an easier tension-holding strategy than having to be imaginative enough to have constant tension in a long plot. It really does take incredible imagination to keep up tension and escalation for the duration of an entire 90 minute plot. Usually, they have a couple subplots to help, but even that is difficult to sustain. Most movies, even great ones I love, have boring tensionless sections that feel repetitive. Anyway, I can’t think of a movie made out of a collection of subplots that I like as much as this one. And the character writing could not be more authentic and complex. In this movie, characters subtly express their truest selves in almost every moment of action. I think Linklater’s direction is wonderful, but I wonder if the astoundingly beautiful performances in this movie arise from this stunning character-writing mixed with perfect casting. When you have characters this alive and you cast actors who perfectly emanate that character already, you get stuff like this. And this is a cast of supporting actors who almost all became much bigger stars later, many of them stars I find unpleasant. But this movie has beautiful performances from Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich, Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, and Joey Lauren Adams. It’s crazy. And all the actors who never became famous are so memorable and wonderful as well. The 90’s was an incredible decade for ensemble cast movies. It was practically a trend among the directors that did my favorite movies of the 90’s: Tim Burton, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Spike Lee, Joel Coen, John Sayles, Guy Maddin. Even The Road to Wellville and To Die For have beautiful ensemble casts. Why was the 90’s not a time for great few-character movies?
Anyway, the main reason I love this movie is for its nostalgia about the folly and confusion of youth, the drama of moment-to-moment life as a teenager, the extremity of feeling that one never regains. Though I will always experience things that feel incredibly romantic and certainly felt that sort of romance and drama all through my twenties, there’s no comparison to the emotional extremes I felt as a teenager. And though it was mostly pretty bad, I love to think of those old stories of desperate behavior and all the classic mistakes and confusions. So, when I watch this movie, which is pretty much a fun comedy, not heavy-feeling at all, I cry the whole thing. And finally, it’s one of the best movies about the subject of “coolness” and the search for a balance between coolness and authenticity. “Cool” is the most important word in this movie; it appears dozens of times, used in different contexts to mean different things, every character desperate to find its meaning. In one of my favorite moments, a stoner character tries to ask a freshman if he smokes weed by saying, “Are you cool, man?” The freshman doesn’t understand what he means and so, of course, bristles at this question. He wants to say “yes”, but is that something one can do, just claim publicly to be cool? And why is he asking? Is coolness not immediately visible? Does coolness begin with claiming you’re cool?