Rock 'N' Roll High School

IT WAS BOUND TO COME UP SOONER OR later. Richard Linklater was screening "Dazed and Confused"--his crushingly funny and knowing ode to misspent youth, set in the much-maligned '70s--when studio executives interrogated him about a certain scene. It's an inconsequential bit: some high-school girls sit around drinking beer and flicking bottle caps. One girl says, "Do you want to do something else?" Another says, "Yeah. Like what?" Which says it all, or nothing at all, depending on how you look at it. "in the film business, you have to justify everything," says the 32-year-old director. "Everybody said, 'This scene doesn't mean anything. It doesn't advance the plot.' I was like, 'What plot?"'

In 1991, Linklater debuted with the small independent film "Slacker," a celebration of life on the fringes shot in his hometown, Austin, Texas. The director had dropped out of Sam Houston State University. He had parked cars and worked on an oil rig. He'd helped found the Austin Film Society, which screened the works of Fassbinder. "Slacker," not surprisingly, was out there. Roughly 100 misfits breezed in and out of the movie's revolving door, the most memorable of which was a hyperanimated young woman trying to fence Madonna's Pap smear.

For "Dazed," Linklater jumped to a $6 million budget and a big-time partner, Universal Pictures. But his style remains wonderfully idiosyncratic: talky, character driven and almost entirely without artifice. "Dazed" visits familiar teen themes like authority, boredom, young love and social climbing. Still, it's one of those rare movies that don't talk down to teenagers, but speak for them. After a study showed that films rated PG and PG-13 were better investments than films rated R, the folks at Universal wondered if "Dazed" had a shot at a PG-13. "Well," Linklater told them, "we have 78 'f---s' in the script, pot smoking all the way through and teenagers drinking and driving. I don't think so."

You would think that Hollywood would be wary of a film so steeped in drug culture. But the pot smoking takes place at a safe remove, the '70s. "You could set this movie today," says Linklater, "you just couldn't get it made." Even dressed in '70s threads, however, "Dazed" has managed to create controversy. The Motion Picture Association of America recently got into a scuffle with the distributor, Gramercy Pictures, demanding this ad line be killed: "Finally! A movie for everyone who did inhale."

"Dazed" begins on May 28, 1976, the last day of classes at a Texas high school. It ends 18 hours later, after a night of hazings and keg parties, petty crimes and crying jags. At the center of the first-rate ensemble cast, all of them unknowns, there's the kindly quarterback Randy "Pink" Floyd (Jason London) and the wide-eyed freshman Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins). Mitch, with his loud floral shirt, is an innocent who wants in. Pink, with his cool white bell-bottoms and pukashell choker, is a jaded jock who wants out: "If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself."

Orbiting around Pink and Mitch are a yearbook's worth of characters. Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey) is a skanky, lascivious, aging graduate; Don Dawson (Sasha Jenson) is a live-wire football hero. Slater (Rory Cochrane) is a hilarious, analytical pothead who insists that George and Martha Washington "toked weed" and considered it "a good cash crop for the Southern states." The actors inhabit their roles so easily that they give the movie a documentary feel-though most are too young to remember the '70s as more than a blur. Says Linklater, "In rehearsals, I'd have to tell them, You don't say dude, you say man."

As a '70s flashback, "Dazed" has everything but a drum solo: macrame belts, wide-body muscle cars, Alice Cooper tunes. But Linklater never plays the decade for laughs. He soft-pedals the movie's current trendiness--the '70s revival meets the pot revival just as he resists the exploitation and high drama common to most high school flicks. "I just wanted to capture what I remember: the rhythm of being a teenager. It was a lack of drama that I was going for."

With "Dazed" launched, Linklater is drumming up interest in new scripts. One concerns a couple that meets on a train; another, two construction workers in the '80s. Linklater figures he can make the movies with or without Hollywood. "I'm not a part of the club," he says. Recently, he took money he made on "Dazed" and bought a '68 GTO. Hollywood types prefer a Lexus, but Linklater's driving a muscle car.