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Graduation rites on video

By Sarah Hepola

JUNE 1, 1999: 

Dazed and Confused
D: Richard Linklater (1993)
with Jason London, Joey Lauren Adams, Milla Jovovich, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Anthony Rapp, Wiley Wiggins, Rory Cochrane, Matthew McConaughey.

Can't Hardly Wait
D: Harry Elfont, Deborah Kaplan (1998)
with Ethan Embry, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Seth Green, Lauren Ambrose, Charlie Korsmo, Peter Facinelli, Melissa Joan Hart, Breckin Meyer, Jerry O'Connell, Jenna Elfman.

In the movies I grew up watching, the last day of school was a historic celebration. Breasts were bared. Pants went around the ankles. Social structures almost two decades in the making dissolved underneath alcohol and other inebriates. Think about Fast Times at Ridgemont High, when Spicoli (Sean Penn) narrowly escapes the iron fist of Mr. Hand to make it (baked beyond belief) to the blow-out high school party, where he mounts the stage in his Vans and sings "Wooly Bully" with the band. Or Less Than Zero, when Robert Downey Jr. traipses around in his gown swinging a champagne bottle. And who could forget the last day of school in Grease, when not only was there singing, dancing, and pie throwing, but also huge carnival rides and flying cars right there on the football field? The PTA at my high school, having glimpsed a few too many of these films, locked me and my fellow graduates in at an all-night, chemical-free party. I got sick after eating too many jalapeño poppers and my best friend won a gift certificate to Chili's playing bingo. That's as exciting as it got. But in the movies, the students on the last day of school are afforded something more fitting to that particular rite of passage, more elaborate, more triumphant. What those adults didn't understand (they never do) was that the last day of school wasn't just about partying and getting wasted -- although to some extent it was. And the best of these teen films illustrate that with an affectionate soul. They home in on the anxiety, the fear, and the dreams in the heart of a teenager and how all that can come unhinged after a couple of drinks. The best of these films are not condescending at all, but treat their subjects as exactly what they are: people on the very frightening edge of their future. People for whom all their life thus far has been merely a preamble, who are about to begin something so new they don't even have words for it yet. People like Say Anything's Lloyd Dobler, who doesn't know what he wants to do with his life but "at least he knows he doesn't know."

Dazed and Confused

First on this list is 1993's Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater's American Graffiti for the Nineties, which follows a cluster of Texas teens as they wander about on May 28, 1976, the last night of school, searching for a good time and ultimately, themselves. What happens? Not much. But that's the beauty of Dazed and Confused -- the way it evokes the long, lingering nights of boredom, of just driving around, whittling away time outside some hangout, hungry for something, anything to take their mind off things. Much like the students themselves, Linklater's film is content to wander, populated with dozens of memorable characters, whose paths all converge on the eventual kegger deep in the woods at Moon Tower. The film is chock-full of hilarious moments, most notably from hysterical Rory Cochrane as perpetual stoner Slater and Matthew McConaughey in his first film role as Wooderson, the lecherous high school hanger-on ("That's what I like about these high school girls. I keep getting older, they stay the same age."). But Dazed and Confused, like the teenage experience, is also terrifically poignant, as it depicts that innocent, tremulous moment in your life when you fervently believed that what was just on the other side of the corner -- be it high school, or graduation, or a new girlfriend, or the next party -- would bring to an end the shitty life you had known so far and usher in the new era of greatness. Young Wiley Wiggins evokes those forgotten years as blushing freshman-to-be Mitch Kramer, a sweet and volatile combination of adolescent awkwardness and well-guarded hope. For me, he is the heart of Dazed and Confused, the wondering, questioning, naive soul searching for love and promise hidden somewhere inside a hot, summer Texas night.

I harbor a real affection for last summer's Can't Hardly Wait, which follows a group of seniors on the night of one huge graduation party. The film is understandably dismissed as fluff by most, but for those with a soft spot for Eighties teen fare, the movie is a real find. Recalling the blustering wit of John Cusack and the painful, humorous social strata of John Hughes' universe, Can't Hardly Wait isn't a great film, but I still get lost in it, especially in the earnest performances that are peppered throughout it. And with that I'm not talking about Jennifer Love Hewitt, the little vixen who's the object of so much affection in this particular movie. With those pert bubble breasts and a personality about as spicy as a communion wafer, Love (as she's annoyingly known to her friends) always reminds me of someone's mousy little annoying sister. And while I know she's probably the reason most went to see this sweet film in the first place, she is its least interesting asset. Instead, there is a host of supporting characters, stock though they may be, that make this rehash of all that is old new again. First and foremost on this list is Seth Green as Kenny Fisher -- Special K as he calls himself -- the white boy who thinks he's a homeboy. "Why y'all gotta waste my flava!" Kenny demands of his wigger friends, as he embarks on one of many pathetic attempts to satisfy his alarming sex drive. In one of the film's most hilarious sequences, Kenny gets locked in the bathroom (of course) with sarcastic, cynical Denise, and both begin to tear down the other's wall of defenses, in what ultimately becomes the film's best subplot. But everything in Can't Hardly Wait takes on a kind of breathless urgency, from dork Charlie Korsmo's plan for revenge to wide-eyed Ethan Embry's pining for his true love Amanda, because this is the end of something tremendous. Can't Hardly Wait is flighty, predictable stuff, but it's gratifying to watch because it allows its protagonists their long-sought-after redemption, the things they've been secretly yearning for all these years. It is at least one evening in which, at the hands of movie magic, these lifelong losers are allowed to triumph. That's the way it should be. The last day of school is the end of something big. It is the end of everything these kids have come to know by heart, the end of school and cliques and chores and curfews. But then, like all good endings, it is only the twilight of something else.

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