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'Dazed and Confused': A Real High-School Confidential : As a follow-up to 'Slacker,' Richard Linklater film relives the teen-age rituals of the '70s.

September 24, 1993|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The high school "experience" ought to be a cinch to capture on film but it rarely is. Those dawdly, dithery days and nights too often come across as coy, mannered--worse, meaningful . Most high school movies are made by adult filmmakers who don't remember that, when you're young, you don't comprehend your life as a series of coming-of-age revelations. You're too busy being dazed and confused.

Richard Linklater, who has made the aptly titled "Dazed and Confused" (selected theaters) as his follow-up to "Slacker," understands this. One of the film's constant pleasures is the way it avoids the coming-of-age syndrome. His high schoolers go through changes in the course of the film, but without fanfare. We watch them on the last day of school--it's 1976--and observe their tribal tantrums on into the night.

The cast of characters is large but remarkably differentiated. We may be looking at a congregation of types--including Pink (Jason London), the star quarterback, O'Bannion (Ben Affleck), the bully who hazes freshmen, Slater (Rory Cochrane) the doper, Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey), the hoody graduate who keeps hanging around the high school, and Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi), the red-headed brain who falls for the hood--but Linklater has too much affection for them to type them. These kids are individuals, and yet no matter what high school era you passed through, they're immediately recognizable. (You also recognize yourself in them.)

The mid-'70s, of course, are basic to Linklater's game plan; set a few years earlier or later, the film's mood would have been not so subtly altered. These students are on the crest of the era of lowered expectations, caught in the time warp between the hectic rebellious '60s and the greed-is-good '80s. They're in a dulled-out limbo, but they seem to accept their fate with an almost comic aplomb. When they toke a joint or chug a beer they do it with mock abandon; they know they can't hope to be rebels without a cause a la James Dean. The times don't allow for that kind of vehemence. So they loiter and jive and wait for the new era to kick in and define them. (The terrific soundtrack, ranging from Aerosmith to Dylan, is their anthem.)

And yet one of the best jokes of the film is how close these kids seem to teen-agers today. For one thing, the fashions are back in style. But, on a deeper level, the tribal rituals are essentially the same. (That's why they're tribal.) Linklater doesn't go very far into these rituals, but he doesn't keep things at a sitcom level either. "Dazed and Confused" (rated R for "pervasive continuous teen drug and alcohol use and very strong language") isn't the creepy, floating jag that his first film, "Slacker," was. For all its originality, that film was like David Lynch on downers--or, maybe, uppers. The personal stories in "Dazed and Confused" aren't over-dramatized or weird, but they retain a slightly hallucinatory quality because Linklater keeps everything on the same wide-eyed level. Keg parties and scuffles and dope-smoking all enter into the same convivial blur.

The cast is studded with standouts. Adam Goldberg, playing a junior who wants to become a lawyer and join the ACLU except he can't stand the people he's supposed to help, is right on target. Wiley Wiggins, as a much-hazed freshman, turns his lanky lope into a strut by the film's end. Sasha Jenson's Don is the kind of footballer who can't resist dispensing headlocks to those less fortunate than he. Ribisi turns her character's bemused attraction for the hood into something almost poignant. (She brings out his own bemused gallantry.) Linklater, who went through high school in the mid-70s, is still close enough in spirit to these actors to draw them out.

"Dazed and Confused" isn't the "American Graffiti" for the mid-'70s generation. It's a highly enjoyable spree that doesn't add up to a whole lot by the end. But you don't necessarily want it to add up to anything--that's part of its charm. Linklater knows his limitations, which is another reason why his connection to his characters is such a perfect fit.

'Dazed and Confused'

Jason London: Pink

Adam Goldberg: Mike

Marissa Ribisi: Cynthia

Michelle Burke: Jodi

A Gramercy Pictures release. Director Richard Linklater. Producers James Jacks, Sean Daniel, Richard Linklater. Screenplay by Richard Linklater. Cinematographer Lee Daniel. Editor Sandra Adair. Costumes Katherine (K.D.) Dover. Production design John Frick. Art director Jenny C. Patrick. Set decorator Deborah Pastor. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.

MPAA-rated R

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