Here for a good time, not for a long time.
I think this movie is suffering from serious mis-marketing, even from Linklater himself. This movie takes place at college in the eighties and it’s being called a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused, which took place at high school in the seventies. But it’s nothing like Dazed and Confused really in tone or style. Like the previous film, this one has a sprawling, massive ensemble and it’s essentially plotless, but there the similarities end. This film follows, to the degree it has a main character, Jake, played with guileless sincerity by Blake Jenner, a guy arriving at college on a baseball scholarship; it’s Friday evening and we’ll follow him all through this weekend, with a repeated countdown to the Monday morning first class. Linklater nails the eighties perfectly, as you’d expect and the cast is game for anything, from the shortest shorts to the cheesiest mustaches. But Linklater’s arrived at a time in his career when he cares less about being entertaining and this movie is very slow; it’s much slower than Boyhood, for instance, a movie that many people criticized for being about nothing. The film has laughs and it is fun to watch some of the characters interact, but Linklater isn’t interested in making a film as energetic and dynamic as Dazed & Confused. I won’t call this a maturation, because that has a kind of value judgment that it shouldn’t. But there’s less here in terms of any kind of over arcing character beats or anything like that.
There are problems, like a real lack of female characters and perspectives. That’s another difference from D&C (not dilatation and curettage). Until late in the film, the only women we meet are unnamed women the guys are trying to pick up; there’s a mud-wrestling scene and some gratuitous boob & butt shots. To some degree, Linklater has chosen to follow a baseball team, so that limits things and nothing he captures here isn’t the kind of debauchery you really find on college campuses. It’s actually pretty tame compared to actual college campuses, I think. But it’s a breath of fresh air when an actual character that’s a young woman enters, but she’s only in about the last third or maybe quarter of the film. But Linklater is getting at something interesting; he’s always getting at something interesting. This film is about identity in a lot of ways, about the way Jake resists the easy categorization of a baseball jock in order to, for instance, hang out with a guy he knew in high school that’s into punk rock and sports leather and chains. And the film’s about nostalgia in a really different kind of way than I expected. There’s some nostalgia about college, of course, but what’s really intriguing is the way Linklater gets at how these incredibly young college kids already feel nostalgic themselves about their pasts, whether it’s the seniors remembering the halcyon days of their freshman year or the freshmen themselves, missing the familiarity of high school. So, the film is thought provoking and interesting in a quiet kind of way, just like the best of Linklater.
The film has plenty of laughs and the entire ensemble is quite brilliant, so much so that I really feel like it would do a disservice to even pick some standouts; really, they’re just all absolutely perfect in their respective roles. But it’s not up to the heights I was hoping it would be. It’s no D&C, no Boyhoood, no Before Sunset, etc. But it’s still up to some interesting things, has plenty of ideas to go around, a script with some wit to it and a great cast. So, the fact that it drags at times and has little in the way of energy can’t drag it down too much. It’s not a crowd-pleaser, but it’s a movie very much worth seeing and, in fact, I kind of feel like I need to see it again, like there’s more there that I need to unpack. Still, no masterpiece, but still a darn good movie. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – Linklater has a sprawling college ensemble in the eighties; great cast & thoughtful script work well, but it doesn’t have the energy that might make it a masterpiece. 3 ½ stars.