“Frontiers are where you find them”
Everybody Wants Some!! — the latest from director Richard Linklater — ends as Jake (Blake Jenner) rests his head down on his desk to take his first in-class snooze of undergrad. His history professor has just scrawled the above quote on the blackboard, a tight thesis statement of a meandering but satisfying film to kick off the first night of SXSW’s 30th year.
A “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused, Linklater’s breakout high school classic, Everybody picks up where its predecessor drops off — the college years. More specifically, the first weekend of college for baseball freshman Jake, who arrives at school with stacks of vinyl and worn mitt in tow. The movie has no real narrative arc, following Jake and the nationally ranked band of hooligans that attempt to embrace, torture, and guide him through the last summer blowout of 1980.
I was wary, in the beginning. Cringe-worthy jokes abound (having sex with a girl on a waterbed is apparently like “having sex with a girl on top of another really fat girl”) as Jake explores the decrepit house he’ll be sharing with his teammates. Everybody seems to be preparing you for a two hour Seth Rogen-penned period piece, and while the costumes, soundtrack and mood are excellently executed, I could do without the overt misogyny. It’s as though Linklater couldn’t let more than two minutes pass without one of the five in the main ensemble complaining about “chasing tail” — and they use this phrase earnestly because it’s 1980.
This first hour is bearable because of the cast assembled and their improvisational take on the material. I have no idea how much Linklater let them go off script, but Jake, who is privy to the wisdom of senior students Roper (Ryan Guzman) McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin) and Willoughby (Wyatt Russell), plays around the planned dialogue impressively. The group’s physical comedy is dynamic, and Linklater doesn’t shy away from possible incoherence, letting moments play out until their absurdity turns to charm. When Willoughby steals one of Jake’s records and Jake goes to the door of his room to confronthim, Willoughby shrugs with his eyes wide, mocking Jake’s earnestness by making unintelligible noises as he slinks back down the hall. Earlier, teammates piled into a car sing the entirety of The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” with the skill of a Broadway cast a few weeks into previews. Cut away one moment too soon, and you’ve missed the kernel of ridiculousness that the film relies on.
The second hour of Everybody Wants Some!! floored me. The quick, tangent-heavy dialogue about chicks and baseball continues, but Linklater’s focus becomes the weird social hierarchies of the team and how to make a life around it. These baseball bros are, in fact, game for any kind of fun. They go to a mosh-y punk concert when Jake is invited by a high school friend, and later they even find themselves at an orchestrated ball of a party thrown by the theater department. Jake is not afraid to voice his misgivings about having to fall in with the baseball team immediately, as at the concert he openly asks Finnegan how to choose what kind of person he should be. The two don’t come to an answer, and jump back into the dancing.
I played college softball for two years. This was preceded by a decade of elite athletics that required playing — and living and communicating — with a group of people I may otherwise have never known. To watch Jake wrestle with how to be around and understand people so immediately was achingly familiar. The push and pull of how you feel and what you have to — or should — do is so jarring, and I think the exploration of this becomes more potent as the film winds down. Certain questions become increasingly important for Jake — how do you manage to find yourself as a pigeonholed jock or a theater kid? And if those barriers are broken or resolved, how exactly do you define yourself when everything is so dauntingly possible?
Linklater parses down the scope of the film to extraordinary success when he focuses on the these unresolvable questions in conjunction with Jake’s budding romance. Jake meets Beverly (Zoey Deutch in a disarming, excellent performance) at the very beginning of the film, but only speaks with her in the final half hour. She’s the theater major that invites him to the party, and their conversations — in her dorm room, walking down the street, and on the outskirts of the bash — are quietly romantic and philosophical. He tells her what he’s told no one else so far: that his application essay focused on the myth of Sisyphus, that baseball is his boulder, and though some see his playing as pointless, he is thrilled to be pushing any boulder at all. They talk all night and only part to attend their first class of college.
Though the first hour was questionable, the cringe quality of Everybody Wants Some!! was necessary in establishing a social expectation of the team to be broken down later. The contrast here is key, and I was glad to find that those absurdly fun moments in the beginning only multiplied, expanding into a smaller world that was abundant in charm and self-reflection. Linklater is saved by his cast in many moments, but in the end narrows his focus to assert emotive, nostalgic filmmaking as his own frontier.
Featured image courtesy of SXSW.