Generally speaking, directorial careers have ebbs and flows. There were of course some masters who released big long streaks of amazing movies but more often than not directors can only have so much success before they put out a… shall we say “lesser effort.” That’s certainly what you expect from a director like Richard Linklater, who rarely ever makes movies that are outright “bad” but who has clearly made a number of films that can be called “inessential.” For every Before Sunrise or Slacker that that guy makes he makes two or three SubUrbias or Fast Food Nations. Again, those aren’t bad movies per se, but they aren’t the kind of films that would lead you to believe that he’s one of the best directors working today. That track record didn’t necessarily bode well for his latest movie given that he’s coming off of two career high triumphs in Before Midnight and Boyhood, so he definitely seemed to be due for a minor effort. And yet, there was still reason to hope because his newest movie was said to be a “spiritual sequel” to one of his most popular films, Dazed and Confused, and Linklater is nothing if not capable of making sequels that don’t disappoint given how well his “Before” series is working out.
While Dazed and Confused was about the last day before summer vacation for high school students in 1976, this spiritual sequel is about the first days before college starts for a group of similar group of young people in 1980. Being as Everybody Wants Some!! is a spiritual rather than literal sequel (and this having been made over twenty years after that movie) this is a completely different cast of characters. Our main protagonist is a guy named Jake (Blake Jenner), who is the new pitcher for the baseball team at an unnamed Texas University and the film starts as he’s moving into the team’s off campus housing. There he gets to know the rest of the team and spends the next three days before classes begin adjusting to the college life of partying and picking up women.
Everybody Wants Some!! has been called “Dazed and Confused but in the 80s,” which is technically true but it should be remembered that the film is set in the year 1980, which is only four years after Dazed and Confused and early enough in that next decade that it doesn’t really feel like the 80s yet. Linklater maintains the obsessive historical accuracy that characterized that earlier film here and it really is kind of uncanny how successful he is at recreating the era he’s chosen down to the last poster and pinball machine. A big part of his ability to do that both here and in Dazed has to do with the fact that their casts have primarily been composed of relative unknowns. Most of the films’ young cast have backgrounds on teen televisions shows that I’m not familiar with and that definitely helped create the illusion that these were actually people living in the 1980 rather than millennial actors playing dress-up. Don’t underestimate the cast for their lack of star power; under Linklater’s direction they have great chemistry and rapport.
Like Dazed and Confused this is very much a “hangout movie” where you watch the episodic escapades of the films’ characters as they go through a couple of days that don’t seem very eventful to them at the time but which you get the impression will stick with the characters for a while after the fact, in part because you get the distinct impression that Linklater (who did play baseball at Sam Houston State University) is drawing liberally from his own experiences as he frequently does in his best films. There is however a key difference between the hanging out in Dazed and the hanging out here in that high school social interactions are way more high stakes than social interactions in college… or at least it seems that way to the people going through them. In Dazed and Confused the younger characters are on edge because they’re worried about what their role will be in High School while the older characters are trying to navigate whether to move towards adulthood or continue indulging in the travails of youth. It’s all right there in the title. Here, not so much. Jake is almost immediately accepted into his new group of friends and the movie gives very little indication that his college experience will be anything short of a totally awesome four year party.
That Linklater depicts the transition into college life as being easier than the transition into high school, at least for characters like these, he isn’t being simplistic so much as he’s being observational. College is kind of awesome and college students are generally a lot better adjusted than high school students. However, I do think Linklater might have let his nostalgia get the best of him a little this time out. Dazed and Confused ends with Pink saying “if I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life – remind me to kill myself” but I get the impression from Everybody Wants Some!! that Linklater doesn’t see a similar tragedy in college being the peak of one’s life experiences even though it isn’t that much later or that much more meaningful. Also, while it’s easy to admit that college life is more easygoing than high school life… it usually isn’t this much better. Not everyone who goes to college is able to immediately fit into a new group of friends, become the life of every party you go to, and meet the girl of your dreams within hours of arriving on campus and get into her good graces a couple days later over the course of an idyllic evening. Maybe the first few days of college really were this awesome for Linklater but I think he does have his rose colored glasses on here and that the film could have benefited more if it had at least hinted at some of the downsides of the college experience or perhaps done a little more to signal that these characters are eventually going to find themselves ejected from this little oasis in four years and will have to face greater challenges.
That little observation should not be viewed as some kind of damning indictment of the film however, because overall I really enjoyed it. Hangout scene for hangout scene this may actually be a more consistently amusing and watchable film than Dazed and Confused was. It still has a great soundtrack, great attention to detail, and all sorts of fun conversations and character interactions. As a simple, albeit slightly unconventional, entertainment the film is highly recommended and in its own odd little way it may just be one of the greatest college-set comedies ever made. However, its episodic “hangout” nature is a little bit of a weakness for me. That same “hangout” nature was also kind of a weakness for Dazed and Confused , and for all the praise I’ve given that film while comparing it to this one, I would say that was also a movie that ultimately lands in the “very good but not great camp” for me and the fact that this movie has even fewer emotional stakes for its characters does kind of exacerbate my reluctance about this format. Still, like the college experience that it’s painting, this is a really fun little ride while it lasts.