Dazed and Confused

The 70s were evidently a crueller time in which to grow up, judging by the glee with which Richard Linklater portrays the hazing rituals of American teenagers on the last day of school. The film takes an anthropological stance – taking account of the paddlers' pleasure and the paddled's pain, but it does give the most vicious of the senior bullies a comeuppance at the hands of the freshmen.

The film reminded me a lot of this year's Mektoub, My Love, in that it's a nostalgia fest for being young and beautiful, but also a sprawling investigation into the knotty relationships between a vast group of characters – their little squabbles and flirtations, and the overlapping friendship-groups they coalesce around. Linklater is less of a letch, and more of a romantic, than Abdellatif Kechiche, which is a mercy given that his kids are younger. But that youth and romanticism also mean that the conflicts and choices faced by the characters are more straightforward.

The film makes two big statements. The first is a speech by Adam Goldberg's overtalkative nerd Mike (very much a Linklater stock character) yearning for a moment of carefree abandon where the promise of tomorrow isn't sacrificed for the pleasures of the present. The earnestness of the speech is punctured by Mike then preposterously revealing a secret desire to dance, which may be a standout line but is too absurd to be funny. The willingness to delay gratification is a marker of success for children and adults, but Linklater's point is that sometimes people need a break from the daily grind and an opportunity to run riot. The true value of life is to be found in the carnivalesque atmosphere of the film – where the rules are turned upside down and you're free to do whatever you want.

The second big statement is basically the same as the first. The film is given some shape by Pink's dilemma of whether to remain on the football team and renounce drink and drugs. His older friend (a magisterial Matthew McConaughey in his breakout role) gives a big speech about the importance of living your own life and not kowtowing to authority, advice Pink follows with uncertain results.

But the most subtle aspect of the film is how both these instances of rebellion are couched in a context where everyone is being pressured by everyone else to fit in. Pink receives constant representations from his friends on the team begging him not to quit. Mike's idea of cutting loose is to go to a party and get in a fight – a very traditional view of how cool dudes spend their time. The contradiction at the heart of the film is that being dazed and confused isn't all that subversive when everyone around you is trying to get you dazed and confused.

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