The Spirit of ‘76

Do you know the inside story of Dazed and Confused, one of the greatest movies about high school ever made—and the flick that made Matthew McConaughey famous? It’d be a lot cooler if you did!

There was no good reason to expect Dazed and Confused , the second feature film from Slacker director Richard Linklater, to become a pop-culture phenomenon when filming began in Austin in June 1992. The only remotely recognizable faces in the ensemble cast were a bitchy teen villainess from a low-rated soap and a sixteen-year-old sorta-supermodel who had no lines. And the action, such as it was—small-town kids driving muscle cars in slow circles while smoking dope and listening to Edgar Winter eight-tracks—was set on the last day of school in … 1976. Could enough time ever pass to make a return trip to the days of pet rocks and Peter Frampton worth embarking on?

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity. Like American Graffiti and Fast Times at Ridgemont High before it, Dazed became the rookie card for a generation of new stars, both of the Hollywood and independent-film varieties. Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, and Renée Zellweger (who had a small, nonspeaking role) are the names that now need no introduction. Almost as familiar, but in more of a where-have-I-seen-that-face-before way, are co-stars Milla Jovovich (a L’Oréal spokesmodel), Parker Posey ( Waiting for Guffman), Joey Lauren Adams ( Chasing Amy), Rory Cochrane ( TV’s CSI: Miami), Cole Hauser ( 2 Fast 2 Furious), Anthony Rapp (the original Broadway cast of Rent), Marissa Ribisi ( Pleasantville), and Adam Goldberg ( Saving Private Ryan).

The secret of Dazed’s success isn’t Linklater’s paper-thin plot: Against a backdrop of the annual hazing of incoming ninth-graders at Lee High School, the star quarterback, Randall “Pink” Floyd, wrestles with signing a pledge to lead a drug-free summer, and a freshman-to-be, Mitch Kramer, gets a first taste of his new life. It’s the characters, who, despite being played by unknowns, are immediately identifiable to anyone who can remember high school. McConaughey’s Wooderson is the guy who has already graduated but continues coming around the school anyway. Affleck’s O’Bannion is the sadistic bully suspected of intentionally failing his senior year so that he can terrorize yet another class of freshmen. Posey and Adams are Darla and Simone, the pretty, catty, popular girls. Cochrane is Slater, the stoner who gets to hang out with the cool kids because he always has pot. Goldberg, Ribisi, and Rapp are Mike, Cynthia, and Tony, the nerdy journalism-class kids who serve as the movie’s geek chorus, struggling to make sense of a world that places no value on their greatest asset, intelligence. The travails of Pink and Mitch, played by Jason London and Wiley Wiggins, respectively, don’t so much provide narrative arc as pairs of eyes through which to view Linklater’s dead-on re-creation of high school.

Critical praise was nearly universal when Dazed opened ten years ago, in late September 1993—Newsweek called it a “crushingly funny and knowing ode to misspent youth”—but a small initial release, on only 183 screens, meant the film barely broke even at the box office, taking in just $8 million. Fortunately, many of those screens were in college towns, where the movie found a natural audience and built the word-of-mouth buzz by which cult favorites are made. Eventually it even outgrew cult status; home video and DVD sales and rentals total more than $30 million, and the two volumes of the soundtrack have together sold more than two million copies. Fittingly enough for a coming-of-age movie in which no one actually comes of age, watching the film has become a rite of passage in and of itself.

But Dazed is about more than rolling papers and tall boys. Unlike American Graffiti, it does not pretend to depict the biggest night in a generation’s life. Instead, it’s one of the few teen movies honest enough to

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...