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Teen movies during the 1980s depicted a world that while enjoyable to watch felt almost fantastical and sugarcoated, often refusing to explore the dark issues that adolescents would face as they slowly approached adulthood. While Heathers was a biting satire that touched upon such themes as teenage suicide and high school peer pressures, the films of John Hughes would often feature likeable bullies that eventually befriend the class nerd, the shy girl landing the boy of her dreams and the antagonistic teacher being humiliated or outclassed.
Yet while the likes of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were undoubtedly enjoyable classics full of memorable dialogue, the reality of school life was far removed from the world that he had created in his movies. By the end of the 1990s the real life horrors of the Columbine massacre and the rise in children on antidepressants would result in a new type of teen movie, one that showed the harsh truths of alienation and despair that many youths would struggle with during their teens, but just a few years earlier acclaimed filmmaker Richard Linklater took inspiration from his school days in the 1970s to create the cult classic Dazed and Confused.
While his little-seen debut It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books would make little impact in any capacity, Linklater burst onto the scene in the early 1990s with Slacker, a low budget drama with no central protagonist that followed an assortment of random youths around the streets and coffee shops of Austin, Texas, musing over their thoughts of pop culture, history and politics. Along with Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Linklater’s sophomore feature would herald in a new wave of independent filmmakers who would soon find themselves infiltrating the major studios, with the likes of Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez following in his wake.
The surprise success of Slacker would soon lead its director to Universal Pictures where he would offer his own contribution to the teen movie genre, one set during the last days of high school before the long hot summer, which would show its young characters indulging in initiation pranks, drinking, flirting with the opposite sex and blasting their favourite rock ‘n’ roll songs from the 8-tracks in their rusted cars. Told from the point-of-view of both freshmen and seniors, Dazed and Confused was as much an ensemble piece as Linklater’s previous film but with its tongue firmly in its cheek it showed a life that existed before the violence of the modern high school.
‘If you really break it down there’s a lot of cruelty and angst and it’s not the best time in your life,’ he would later admit to Film 4 on what it was like being a teenager and how it felt to return to that period in his life twenty years later. ‘You look back on it and there’s something kind of great about it too. That atmosphere of school, you don’t get that later in life. Your world kind of narrows in a way. So if anything people look back at that time and if there’s a nostagia it’s just for the social nature of how your is structured at that time, that’s kind of fun and unique you find. All life isn’t like that.’
Perhaps this is why the teen movie has continued to fascinate and entertain for generations, with the Porky’s of the early 1980s leading to the Hughes movies as the decade progressed, before the likes of American Pie gave the genre an even raunchier spin. Even as they grew darker and more serious in both tone and subject matter, with The Virgin Suicides, The Chumscrubber and Elephant focusing more on their characters internal conflicts than with such typical issues as falling for a classmate, audiences would still return to the genre to relive certain aspects of their own youth.
‘There were very few teenage movies at the time, so every young actor was clamouring to be in it,’ Linklater recently explained to the Guardian when looking back on the making of the movie over a quarter of a century later, a low budget film whose cast would boast future Hollywood stars Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck and Milla Jovovich. ‘We cast in New York – where I met Parker Posey – Los Angeles and Austin. Wiley Wiggins was the big find there. He was a fifteen-year-old with all the bad habits of a grad student: smoking cigarettes, hanging out at coffee shops, my kind of guy.’
But for Linklater, for whom making Dazed and Confused would be his first experience with a studio following two independent features, the film was his attempt to subvert the teen movie genre. ‘I thought the 1970s sucked. Dazed was supposed to be an anti-nostalgic movie. But it’s like trying to make an anti-war movie – just by depicting it, you make it look fun,’ he confessed. ‘I wanted to do a realistic teen movie – most of them had too much drama and plot but teenage life is more like you’re looking for the party, looking for something cool, the endless pursuit of something you never find, and even if you do, you never quite appreciate it.’
The initial concept for what would eventually become Dazed and Confused would originate while Linklater was still working on Slacker. ‘An experimental version of the film had been floating around in my head between 1989 and 91 – just four guys driving around in a car busting mailboxes to ZZ Top,’ he continued. ‘I really did that one night in this little town in south Houston with a friend; by the end of the evening we had driven a hundred and thirty eight miles and never left the city limits. But I quickly realised I wanted to represent different points of view. I wrote a long first draft in about a month. We leapfrogged about thirty other projects that were in development at Universal.’