In what is essentially a sequel to his greatest film, 1993’s Dazed and Confused, director Richard Linklater again sketches an ethnography of baseball-playing Texans in the Carter years. With in-coming freshman Jake (Blake Jenner), tall, broad of shoulder and square of jaw, the most all-American Jake there ever was, as our guide to the world surrounding the off-campus housing of the Southeast Texas University baseball team, the film begins hitting every known beat of the college film, taking cues especially from the juvenile romps of the late 70s and early 80s. The first of five days in the film introduces the team and establishes their various personalities and approaches to life, the end goals of which are universally baseball, woman and beer, and not necessarily in that order. Jake affably meets smooth-talking Finnegan (Glen Powell), somewhat dim Plummer (Temple Baker), henpecked farm boy Beuter (Will Brittain) and apparently insane Niles (Juston Street) among a host of other tall, healthy, reasonably handsome, hyper-competetive men. They spend their first night together drinking and dancing at a local disco and hooking up with a steady supply of casually available women. It’s exactly the kind of obnoxious fantasy of college life you’d imagine 18 year old athletes dream about. But rather than spend a whole film indulging this fantasy, Linklater expands and deepens his film, creating a film that is as much a dumb frat comedy as Dazed and Confused is a stoner comedy, which is to say not at all.
The next few days at school find the boys trying on a series of new potential personae. Ejected from the disco (because of a brawl started by aggro lunatic Niles (Juston Street’s performance is stellar, here’s hoping he has a better 2016 than his brother, Anaheim Angels pitcher Huston)), they make their way first to a cowboy bar, where they line dance and ride a mechanical bull, then the next day take a trip to a punk club, rounding the tour off with a massively destructive party at their own house. The team has a good time wherever they go, whether they fit the stereotype or not. This is because as a group they represent the masters of this particular universe (there are few American lives more socially privileged than that of star athletes (all but one of whom are white) in 1980 Texas), but also because they are genuinely open and curious about the world around them, willing to investigate and listen and learn from the new and curious people they meet wherever they find themselves. While the boys spend their nights drinking and exploring, they spend their days engaged in increasingly ludicrous contests, pastime outlets for the competitive drives that have helped propel each of them to an athletic scholarship. This sociology of the competitive American male may be the film’s greatest accomplishment, the ruthless camaraderie of a group of men, each of whom was the star of his high school, sorting themselves into a new social order has rarely been filmed with such gracefulness. The high point comes in the team’s first practice, where Niles has been flipping out boasting of his skills and berating his teammates. He’s promptly shown-up by one of the upperclassman, a star hitter who drives one of Niles’s fastballs out of the park. Niles storms off in a tantrum, throwing equipment and unable to contain his humiliation. For most filmmakers, this would be enough: the bully has been put in his place and dismissed. But Linklater’s generosity goes a step further: sometime later, Niles returns, not sheepishly, but still apologetic. He nods to the upperclassman, who gives a ‘you’re OK’ nod in return. It’s beautiful.
The film’s final day reveals the truth behind all the swagger and put-ons: Jake explains that the team’s social structure is based on “fuckwithery”, on games of wit: you distinguish yourself as a member of the group by demonstrating that you can take a joke and give one back in return. Every member of the team was once a freshman, and everyone of them, because they are baseball players, is intimately familiar with failure. Baseball is the most psychologically difficult American sport because success comes so rarely, so fleetingly. Even a great game is merely one of 162. The hazings and tricks and games and fights and games of ping-pong and knuckle pounding are all designed to instill in every individual a sense of humility and of comradeship, to create a team that’s greater than any single person. Jake stands out in his instinctual understanding of this system, in the easy way he navigates its unwritten rules and expectations. He’s also the one who most fluidly travels in other circles: they meet up with the punks because one of them is a friend from high school, and he later leads them to a drama party where he readily takes part in a skit next to a guy in drag (much to the confusion of at least one of his teammates). This also informs his burgeoning relationship with the film’s only real female character, a freshman drama student named Beverly whom Jake spends much of the third day getting to know. He leaves her flowers and writes her a note complete with a Whitman quote. They go for ice cream and talk (notably: she does most of the talking while he attentively listens). And, in a notable break from the first night’s montage of beers and boobs, their night together is decidedly PG rated. In the morning, Jake’s romanticism will earn him some mockery from a pair of teammates, but he doesn’t care. Why should he? He’s 18 years old and life is perfect.