Thirty years from when it’s set and 13 past its initial theatrical release, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused recurs in a welcome, if doubly nostalgic, Criterion Collection DVD set. The writer-director’s over-worshipped but nonetheless excellent sophomore feature still works as a paean to rock ’n’ roll-infused adolescence, and in some ways a reaction against other similar exercises; its nuanced emotional authenticity qualifies Dazed and Confused as anti-American Graffiti and, arguably, anti-MTV. What it offers is the contention, rather articulate for all its haze of dope smoke and the bias of ancestral affection, that no, actually, the ’70s didn’t suck.
The movie doesn’t get bogged down by period detail, which is copious and rigorous (no post-May 1976 music was used, to take one oft-cited example), or by the formal cinematic conventions of dramatized coming of age. Structurally, Dazed and Confused seems like a Venn diagram of high-school cliques, as sketched by a clever, gregarious stoner. It has its high emotional stakes, as any last-day-of-school story encompassing both the ritual hazing of freshmen and an all-night keg party in the woods will, but the real engine of Linklater’s film is the overall atmosphere of high-schoolers hanging around and not really doing much. The varied energies of idleness have always been of profitable interest to this filmmaker, who achieves here what Film Comment Editor-at-large Kent Jones, in one of this edition’s several supplemental essays, calls a “balance between the aggressive and the dreamy,” which is just what’s required.
Not that he did it alone. The movie is compassionately, meticulously, perfectly cast, and one good reason to revisit it is to confirm your suspicion that, particularly, Matthew McConaughey (as the dandified postgraduate cradle-robber Wooderson) and Ben Affleck (as the dickhead flunky thug O’Bannion) may never achieve such precise and convincing performances again.