How Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused Launched an Informal Semi-Autobiographical Coming-of-Age Trilogy

“If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself,” says Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London) in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, which was released 30 years ago this week. It’s a bracing statement in a movie suffused with laid-back nostalgic vibes, but one of Linklater’s greatest strengths is his ability to celebrate the past without idealizing it. Dazed and Confused takes place over the course of a single day in 1976, the final day of classes for students at a suburban Texas high school. Linklater himself was a Texas high school student in 1976, but Dazed and Confused isn’t just a warm reminiscence about the filmmaker’s youth.

That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of warm reminiscing in Dazed and Confused. Pink is the closest that the movie has to a protagonist, but the sprawling story encompasses dozens of other characters, from the incoming freshmen who are about to be subjected to relentless hazing to the seniors who are suddenly faced with figuring out their lives. The cast is famously filled with future stars, including Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich, and many more. They all fit seamlessly into Linklater’s world, as he meanders amiably among multiple low-key storylines.

Pink, who’s the school’s star quarterback but also hangs out with stoners, is caught between those two worlds when the football coach insists that all the players sign an anti-drug pledge. Pink’s decision over whether or not to sign the form, and implicitly side with one social group or another, is Dazed and Confused’s most conventional plot element, but it disappears for long stretches as we follow incoming freshman Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins) on his first high school night out, or explore the existential musings of a trio of self-styled outcasts played by Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, and Marissa Ribisi.

For Mitch and his fellow freshmen, there’s also the ever-present threat of hazing, in the form of smacks with wooden paddles for the boys, and less physically abusive tasks for the girls. Like Pink, Linklater was a high school athlete, and in Dazed and Confused he straddles the line between jock and poet, bringing vivid, evocative observations to the toxic rituals of teenage boys. Goldberg and Rapp’s characters lament the absurdity of hazing, but like Linklater, they sit back and observe rather than intervene.

By always remaining firmly in the moment, Linklater connects the audience to nostalgia for a time and place they likely never experienced themselves. “I’d like to quit thinking of the present — like right now — as some minor insignificant preamble to something else,” says Ribisi’s Cynthia Dunn, and Linklater grants all of his characters that wish. The specificity of Dazed and Confused, drawn from Linklater’s own teenage existence, is what makes it so widely relatable.

Linklater returned to that idea 23 years later with what he dubbed a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused, once again featuring a large cast of characters and inspired by his own life. It’s easy to see the continuity between high school football star Pink and college baseball recruit Jake Bradford (Blake Jenner) in 2016’s Everybody Wants Some!!, set over the course of a single weekend in 1980 on a Texas college campus. Dazed and Confused is about the release at the end of the school year, and Everybody Wants Some!! is about the anticipation at the beginning, as Jake arrives for his freshman year and settles in to the off-campus house occupied by seven of his baseball teammates.

Everybody Wants Some!! is even more jock-heavy than Dazed and Confused, although the hazing endured by college baseball players is somehow milder than the hazing endured by incoming suburban high school freshmen. Mostly, Jake is welcomed with open arms by his new teammates, who spend plenty of time drinking, smoking weed, and chasing after women. Both Pink and Jake come off as a little bland compared to the people around them, and the highlight of Everybody Wants Some!! is Linklater’s now-frequent collaborator Glen Powell as Finn, the team’s resident romantic guru.

It’s Finn who leads his teammates through seamless transitions from a disco club to a country bar to a punk concert, trying on different identities in order to score with different types of women. Aside from Zoey Deutch as a sweet, savvy theater major who connects with Jake, there are essentially no female characters in Everybody Wants Some!!, but it still never feels like macho bluster. These are the kind of guys that Linklater, who also played college baseball, respected and valued, and there’s a bit of the jock-poet in nearly every one of them.

In 2022, Linklater returned to Texas to complete his semi-autobiographical trilogy with Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood. Rendered in the rotoscope-style animation familiar from his Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, Apollo 10 ½ goes in the opposite direction from Everybody Wants Some!!, rewinding to 1969 for a story about a 10-year-old kid growing up in the Houston suburbs in the shadow of the space program. An athlete like Pink and Jake, young Stan (Milo Coy) is a kickball wiz who gets “scouted” by NASA thanks to his playground skills — or at least that’s how he tells it.

A self-described “fabulist,” Stan spins a yarn about going on a secret mission to become the actual first American to walk on the moon, but Apollo 10 ½ isn’t really a kids-adventure story. Even more than its two predecessors, it’s an exercise in pure nostalgia, with narration from Jack Black as the adult Stan, rhapsodizing about the pop culture and consumer products of the late 1960s. “Let me tell you about life back then,” he says, and he proceeds to do just that for 90 minutes, with a wistful tone that makes even a litany of TV-show titles into a Proustian reverie.

By this point, it’s easy to recognize the touchstones of Linklater’s Texas youth, popping up in each movie. Here, it’s the teachers, not older students, who have the wooden paddles, but they’re still used on the young and helpless. Stan’s mom (Lee Eddy) attends grad school at a campus that looks just like where Jake will matriculate 11 years later. The rapturous way that Stan’s older sister Vicky (Natalie L’Amoreaux) talks about the Beatles and Joni Mitchell is echoed in the way that Jake’s spaced-out teammate Charlie Willoughby (Wyatt Russell) talks about Pink Floyd. Stan and his friends play pinball at the local bowling alley, while seven years later, Pink and his friends play pinball at a local pool hall. 

“You know how memory works,” Stan’s mom says to his father as she puts Stan to bed on the night of the moon landing. “Even if he was asleep, he’ll someday think he saw it all.” These three movies are Linklater’s way of accessing those memories, even from the times when he was asleep. In that way, they end up feeling like memories for the viewer, too, hazy but welcome recollections of a past that’s just out of reach.

Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He's the former film editor of 'Las Vegas Weekly' and has written about movies and pop culture for Syfy Wire, Polygon, CBR, Film Racket, Uproxx and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.

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