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Dazed and Confused’ gets high on teen spirit

Rama Gottumukkala | Friday, April 13, 2007

In hindsight, high school really was one big haze. At least, that’s the impression you get from “Dazed and Confused,” writer-director Richard Linklater’s cheerfully droll and hilarious revisit of his ’70s teen years.

Employing an ensemble cast with the talent to match the prowess of his prose, Linklater drives the movie forward by parading his characters, one group after another, in front of us. He flexes his rare talent for developing a handful of characters in a two-minute exchange, before whisking us away to another equally compelling group and introducing us to them. Big names like Ben Affleck and Matthew McConaughey and superb character actors like Adam Goldberg and Parker Posey all shine here – several of them in their very first screen appearances.

In this way, “Dazed and Confused” becomes one of the most singularly character-driven movies in recent memory. Even Linklater, on the director’s commentary to the new DVD, admits to the film’s lack of an identifiable plot. Do we miss having a plot? Not really. But if you need one, here it is: A bunch of high schoolers cruise around a small town in Texas for kicks on the last day of school in May 1976. They have fun, get in trouble and get away with it. Some justice is served, but mostly they talk the night away.

Linklater’s motivation for making the movie was simple and two-fold: to capture the energy of being a teenage and playing loud music. Everything else is nonessential. He hoped to capture “what it was like in that moment-to-moment reality, looking around for something to do, trying to be cool, and not much really going on,” he admits on the commentary. “But I still wanted to capture the essential boredom of being a teen and trying to find something to do.”

The finished film plays out a lot like its simple premise, with teens amusing themselves, realizing their boredom before moving on to another pursuit. Its refreshing simplicity never gets old and instead elevates it to one of our great teen pictures. And as a testament to Linklater’s storytelling skill, it never feels like a string of sight gags, which is what it could have easily devolved into in the hands of a lesser filmmaker.

As promised, the soundtrack is bumping. The characters tool around while Aerosmith, War, ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd carry the plot with ease.

Like Zach Braff with “Garden State,” Linklater had the music in mind when fashioning the screenplay. “Music articulated everything you couldn’t really say,” he admits.

With the film already past its 10th birthday, the Criterion Collection has bestowed Linklater’s lovable little film with a two-disc special edition DVD that captures its seminal place among ’90s independent cinema. Featuring a new clean-up video and audio transfer and a wonderful commentary from Linklater, the film looks and sounds better than it ever has before.

But the meat and potatoes of the release are the copious extras. The DVD includes on-set and behind-the-scenes interviews with cast and crew, trailers, deleted scenes and footage from the 10-year anniversary reunion. The real treasure is the “Making ‘Dazed'” documentary, a 45-minute piece that digs into why the film was so hard to make, and how Linklater and the crew managed to will it into existence.

Playing out like one charming vignette after another, “Dazed and Confused” is a rare and wonderful film that succeeds without ever concerning itself with a plot. “Dazed” remains a landmark teen picture purely on the strength of its characters. They seem almost endless as they laugh, idle, bicker and torment one another for the better part of a day and night in ’76.