When one hears the phrase, “alright, alright, alright,” its impossible not to think of Richard Linklater’s 1993 classic Dazed and Confused. An image of 1970s America, the film romanticizes high school life in a small town. Following a group of seniors and freshman on the last day of school, the film shows their hijinks, driving around in giant 70s cars, and lots of drug use.
Although Dazed and Confused depicts a significant amount of drug use, it doesn’t show anything other than kids crushing beers and smoking joints. In this way, the underage drug use in the movie almost approaches an innocence. These kids are not searching for the highs of hard drugs, rather they just want to chill out with the classics. The movie displays this dichotomy with innocence in other areas too, such as the hazing rituals and sexual encounters. Dazed and Confused might seem like a movie about hellions using drugs and beating on kids, but underneath the surface it has an interesting commentary about childhood innocence.
Before we dive into the deeper aspects of the movie, we will start out with a plot synopsis. Furthermore, we will pay special attention to the use of cannabis in the movie, how it affects the characters, and what purpose it serves as a symbol. Let’s dive into Dazed and Confused.
Dazed and Cofused takes place in small town America in 1976, the year of America’s bicentennial. All of the kids in the town are pumped because it is the final day of school and are excited to start the summer. However, incoming high schoolers must suffer through hazing rituals. Middle school girls are made to stick binkies in their mouths, perform air raids, and fake propose to upper classmen. The boys have it rough too, having to get their butts paddled until they are black and blue by the seniors. However, after two of the younger characters get hazed, Sabrina and Mitch, they are invited out for a night of partying on the town.
Here all of the high schoolers are depicted driving around the town, stopping for food, at a hangout, and trying to start a party later in the evening. We see the introduction of Matthew McConaughey’s character Wooderson, who is an older guy who still hangs out around the high schoolers. During this time, Mitch smokes his first joint as he and some seniors cruise around in a car smashing mailboxes. As everyone is looking for something to do, Wooderson puts a party together near the moonlight tower on the outskirts of town.
All of the characters finally meet at the party. Some frustrations spill over, like one character, Mike, who wants to prove that he’s not a loser. Others, like Mitch gets the girl. After the kegs run out the party disperses, and the main characters head to the football field to smoke a joint. They are caught, and the protagonist, Randall “Pink” Floyd, has a watershed moment. He decides he wants to live life on his terms, even if it costs him friends and opportunities.
Cannabis As A Symbol
Cannabis smoking is quite frequent throughout the movie. The characters buy weed, smoke weed, get caught with weed. Another one of McConaughey’s famous lines comes when he asks Mitch if he has a joint; when Mitch says no, Wooderson replies, “It would be a lot cooler if you did.” One of the characters, Slater, is a stereotypical pothead, wearing a shirt with a marijuana leaf on it and spending the entire movie stoned. All of these high schoolers always want to find more weed, and it is one of the objects the movie revolves around.
One moment that stuck with me was when Mitch smoked pot for the first time. As he and some seniors cruised and smoked, he took a few hits, something not unlike many of our first times using cannabis. Then the seniors decide to start destroying mailboxes. Mitch gets in on the action, throwing a bowling ball into the back window of a car. All of the seniors don’t know how to react before breaking into laughter.
My first thought after this scene was thinking, “typical, portraying stoners as violent criminals.” However, looking back it seems more like a coming-of-age moment for Mitch. After smoking for the first time, he buys into the rituals of the seniors. This is not the first time the seniors have done this, and Mitch becomes part of the group by participating. However, the violence does have consequences. Although smashing mailboxes is rather innocent, a man chases down the car and threatens them with a gun, saying, “smashing mailboxes is a federal offense.” As they run away, he fires a gun at them. However the group is unaffected, laughing about it a few minutes later. Getting over this moment shows they are in a middle ground between innocence and adulthood.
Innocence and Coming-of-Age in Dazed and Confused
This movie revolves around characters coming-of-age, a common trope for the high school setting. We see some characters like Mitch and Randall grow significantly over the course of the evening, while others like Wooderson and O’Bannon are stuck in arrested development. This forms a fascinating contrast between characters who grow emotionally and those who refuse to, but the stakes are never particularly high. Mitch transitions from little league baseball player into a full-fledged adolescent, while Randall decides to spend his life on his own terms. Neither of these characters have groundbreaking epiphanies, but their growth is organic. Their relatable emotional growth makes Dazed and Confused feel very real. It’s easy for the viewer to believe that the characters are actual people, rather than dramatized caricatures or stereotypes.
Functioning as a stoner flick, the excellent characterization avoids traditional stereotypes of lazy, no-good pot smokers who are never going to do anything with their lives. Although Slater does function as a typical one-dimensional stoner character, it works well within the terms of the film’s themes about growth. Slater has no desire to change, comfortable to live his life with a joint always between his fingers. In contrast, Randall, who smokes nearly as much pot, is ready to come of age. Furthermore, some of Randall’s most important emotional moments come when smoking, especially at the end of the film. Smoking a joint on the fifty-yard line of the football field he played on throughout high school, he realizes there is more to his life than the team. Cannabis does not symbolize stagnate characters, it epitomizes growth and independence in Dazed and Confused.