Indeed, Richard Linklater is known as a cinematic genius of nostalgia and youthful fun. “This is the best day of my life, until tomorrow,” says team captain McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin). McReynolds’s sentiment might serve as a mantra for a number of Linklater’s projects. EWS!! is the “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused (1993) and a continuation of the more high-toned, Oscar-nominated Boyhood (2014). All of these movies could be classed together as a singular genre, what might be known more widely as the backward-looking, golden-hued best-time-of-my-life movie. If Bromance involves a non-sexual relationship between two men, the best-time-of-my-life movie is all about the ensemble cast, where a group of men collectively fall for each other.
As a collective romance, EWS!! is perpetually caught up in what seems like a beginning. Not much really happens; what is important is the sense that anything could happen. The world is open and full of possibilities, as seen through the eyes of a very earnest freshman pitcher Jake (Blake Jenner). Jake is the “quiet guy,” presumably less louche than the others. Alongside his teammates, he goes from party to bar to party, in search of a good time. This is a handy way to introduce the disparate strains of 1980s counterculture: the disco club, the punk-rock underground, the country-western bar, the theater arts crowd, the frat-like house party. Here are all the ingredients of an ’80s nostalgia tour, with often brilliant costume changes.
However, nostalgia does a very specific sort of work in EWS!!, and, I would argue, in Linklater’s corpus at large. Take one of those early house parties, pointedly off-campus. The conceit is that the university’s dorms are overcrowded, so the baseball team shares two crumbling, unsupervised mansions. The party is Animal House–style, with fields of crushed cans and lady mud-wrestling.
As the party rolls along, one baseball player after another leads a girl up the stairs, into the bedrooms. A montage sequence begins, set to music, as each woman takes off her shirt or is divested of panties, from bedroom to bedroom. In an interview with Variety, Linklater said, “That was a good time to be in college. It was pre-Reagan and pre-AIDS. The worst thing that could happen from sex, you get some crabs and you take some pills and get over it.” Certainly, it was a moment before the widespread politicization of college rape culture, before political correctness and trigger warnings. It harkens back to a time when, for some viewers at least, there is nothing sinister about a stone-drunk frat house of college baseball players, just “guys who will do whatever it takes to get laid,” leading drunk women up the stairs, one after another.
Amid the critical celebration of Linklater as a master of fun, I feel like what Sara Ahmed has called the “feminist killjoy,” that humorless shrew, spoiling everyone’s collegiate good time. In Salon, Joanna Novak wonders, “Is it possible for a feminist to enjoy a movie that celebrates, with fuzzy, nostalgia-lit fireworks, this bro-centric ideology?” Novak says yes: “I loved shelving my feminist critique and joining the bro squad.”
It’s not that EWS!! didn’t make me laugh. It did — out loud. It’s not that I’m immune to the curious, kinetic energy of Linklater’s ensembles, those group of raucous, foul-mouthed dudes, seemingly at the center of the world, the center of fun. I am, in fact, a fan of fun. If one is a bro, the bro squad looks like a great time. But I suppose I feel like that squad wouldn’t have me as a member, or would rape me, and that makes all the difference. When a college coed rejects the advances of Roper (Ryan Guzman), he responds in a huff: “It’s not my fault she’s a bitch.” From the backseat, a teammate hypothesizes that this girl might be too brainy for fun; there is a typewriter spotted in her car. “Lesbians,” the guys conclude, in unison. Or later, “What a dyke.”
Perhaps I am not an ideal viewer of EWS!! But it’s worth thinking about who this ideal viewer might be. Here is A. O. Scott, who at least acknowledges his particular standpoint: “when you are in your 50s, college is an almost mythically distant land, and Everybody Wants Some!! is more than just nostalgic. It’s downright utopian, a hormonal pastoral endowed with the innocent charm of a children’s book.” In a similar vein, in The New Yorker, Richard Brody praises EWS!! as Linklater’s “personal best,” while Anthony Lane writes, “In his limber and leisurely fashion, Linklater is glancing at a golden age.”
Fine, but it’s a golden age for white bros, and I feel very bored and tired making this emendation. It should be said, there is one nonwhite member of the college baseball team, the nice-guy Dale (J. Quinton Johnson). Race is not something talked about in the world of EWS!! This is a version of Texas with mostly white people, down-home culture, cowboy hats, but none of that other stuff: no conservatives, no hate crimes, the only visible Latinos serving drinks. Homophobia is testicular comedy and every girl consents.
At the same time, it would be a lie to say that EWS!! doesn’t have its pleasures. Between casting and filming, the actors camped out at Linklater’s bunkhouse outside of Austin. For three weeks, everyone slept under a single roof. The guys rehearsed scenes and hung out, swimming, playing baseball, and learning to disco dance. At night, they would screen movies from the ’80s. This sounds fun. It also might be the recipe behind Linklater’s somewhat magical group scenes, the hanging out that remains taut though plotless. At the party, bar, ping pong table, or baseball field, there is always that particular energy, a romance of the collective, as though each character was passing the ball back and forth, keeping up momentum that doesn’t need to go anywhere. It’s a stoned and breezy time, seemingly safe. To get at this particular atmosphere, I find myself turning to the language of a spry octogenarian: these are youthful shenanigans, a lark of a time, all boys with their innocent fun.
The studio wanted to cut some of these hang-out scenes, like the extended lip-syncing sequence that takes place in the car, with Jake and his teammates trading verses to The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” Linklater fought back, with the following logic, “If you don’t like hanging out with these guys, you might hate this movie.” I like hanging out with these guys and sort of hate this movie, at the same time.
A strange thing happens when the-best-time-of-my-life genre meets the period piece set in the recent past. If back then was the best time ever, back then has to be better than right now. The golden age of back then becomes the corrective to our present, which is effectively written into the movie as well. In this way, EWS!! doesn’t ignore the headlines; it is about the headlines. This dudely best-time-of-my-life is a direct response to our present, in the children’s storybook sense. It is a turn back to when America was great, as an alternative to right now. It is a crystalline version of a more structural fantasy: college life as paradise for the non-coddled, depoliticized, mostly white, mostly male, and totally heterosexual. It’s the utopia for bros, if you’re a bro.
It is hard to argue with this logic. It’s good to be a handsome, square-jawed college baseball player. It’s good to be on a team, in the in-group, just hanging out. It’s good to be Jake. The best-time-of-my-life plays upon the romance of the collective, without any of the structural violence that enforces who is in and who is out. But see how slippery the line gets, and not just for the critic who can write the following with a straight face:
The double-punctuated title is not only a reference to a classic song by Van Halen […] but also an affirmation of the appetites — for sex, for fame, for victory, for sex — that course through these young men’s veins. And the movie suggests, not without self-awareness or criticism, that this innate lust for life, and the natural competition that it engenders, are essential components of the American male birthright.
This is Justin Chang at Variety. The turn to whetted appetites is supposed to be a compliment, but it just goes to show that there is no non-sinister defense for the “American male birthright” as a conceptual category. Historical reference doesn’t work the way you tell it to, as an ongoing wave of student protests makes clear. Call Linklater “apolitical” all you want, but I hear all sorts of echoes behind the more disturbing sexual implications of that double-punctuated title. The movie may take place in the 1980s, but its audience lives in the present, which is not mythical. Here, now, there is no way to have frat house party without the specter of rape, no way to picture college sports without a history of racial violence.
There can be joy here, too, in turning to the ongoing student protests, the stuff of our headlines now, as part and parcel of any backward glance to the good old college days. Acknowledging the conjuncture of our present and Linklater’s golden past may be killing one kind of innocence.
But the so-called innocent fun of white boys being boys is pretty resilient, so I’m not very worried about it. Behind the refrain of American male birthright, that insistence that Everybody Wants Some!!, it is impossible to un-hear the demands of the present, the We Want Everything, Take Back The Night, We Matter, We’ve Been Here, We Are Loved, as alternative imaginations of a golden age, no exclamation point.