If there's a recurring trend across the spectrum of director Richard Linklater's work, it's his eagerness to give his characters an opportunity to fully express themselves. Linklater films (even blatantly commercial ones like School of Rock and the remake of Bad News Bears) tend to be more concerned with characterization than plot, and the director seems determined to give his characters time to address their most idiosyncratic thoughts. It's Kaye Faulkner musing on the sexism of Gilligan's Island, Dewey Finn ranting about The Man, Mr. Turlington insisting on the importance of discipline, Orson Welles explaining the definition of a great performance and Bernie Tiede lovingly illustrating the right way to embalm a corpse. All of those characters exist within films which offer something of a traditional story, but on various occasions Linklater has taken it even further, scrapping conventional narrative entirely (or almost entirely) and just letting his characters talk and talk and talk about whatever their heart desires. He did this most ambitiously in the Before Sunrise trilogy and most distinctively in the philosophy-driven animated film Waking Life, but that approach – and indeed, Linklater's whole professional career – begins with his scrappy debut Slacker.
Without question, Slacker is considerably rougher and less polished than everything else the director has done. Shot in Linklater's hometown of Austin, Texas with a budget of only $23,000, it very much feels like the work of a talented guy who just decided to grab a camera, call his friends and make a movie. The boom mic slips into the frame on occasion, the cinematography doesn't quite match the ambition of the editing and some of the actors seem a little uncomfortable in front of the camera, yet Linklater's thoughtful, passionate voice shines through loud and clear. It costs a lot to make a movie, but writing is free.
The film begins with Linklater himself playing a young man who hires a taxi cab to take him home. Upon entering the cab, he immediately begins regaling the driver with a theory about parallel universes, suggesting that there is now an alternate universe in which some other version of himself chose not to take a cab. He proceeds to imagine a gentle romantic fantasy for this alternate version of himself, and so effectively convinces himself of his tale's truthfulness that he begins to think he shouldn't have taken the cab. Shortly after he arrives at his destination, the camera pans over to an entirely different character – a young man who hit an old woman with his car and is attempting to cover his tracks. We spend a few minutes with him, then it's on to the next person, and the next, and the next. The film isn't an ensemble drama with numerous overlapping storylines; it's a series of short films connected by a surrealist structure.
Linklater throws a lot of ideas into the mix, and some of them work better than others, but none last long enough to overstay their welcome. We meet the energetic girl (Butthole Surfers drummer Teresa Taylor) attempting to sell the world's strangest piece of Madonna memorabilia, the old man (Louis Mackey) who expresses an enthusiasm for anarchy, the “T-Shirt Terrorist” (Mark Harris) cheerfully offering suggestions on the best way to free Nelson Mandela, the young contrarian (Wammo) who insists that not making art is just as challenging as making art and many, many more. Linklater tends to present these people in long, unbroken takes, which leaves more room for fumbled lines and awkward pauses but which also deepens the illusion that we've just wandered into a random moment in a person's life.
The word “slacker” is often used in a negative manner, but that's certainly not the way Linklater intends it. Some of the characters we encounter are more likable (and more sane) than others, but Linklater regards this colorful assortment of stoners, bohemians, layabouts and conspiracy theorists with affection, amusement and even admiration. They recognize, deep down, that society is lying to them about what's important in life. Sure, they may be completely wrong in their assessment of the truth, but they will reject the establishment with as much conviction as the establishment rejects them. In Linklater's mind, the stasis these people suffer from is largely inspired by awareness, not laziness. It's not naive romanticization, merely an atypically fair-minded summation.
Today, Slacker is hailed as one of the most significant films of the independent film movement of the '90s, demonstrating that smart, ambitious cinema could be made for next to nothing (Kevin Smith credits the movie for inspiring him to make his similarly talky, low-budget debut Clerks). Sure, the movement produced plenty of terrible movies, but doesn't every cinematic movement? The ones that work are the ones we remember, and Slacker is worth remembering for more than mere cultural significance. It's an ambitious first feature from a director whose ambition seems to grow with each passing year, and a loving look at people society tends to cast aside. Eventually, some of these slackers may well be accountants or factory workers or stay-at-home parents. For now, they drift through life in search of answers to questions too few people ask.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Year: 1991