In many ways Dazed and Confused is much more aware of itself than American Graffiti. Indeed, the extent to which this movie is explicitly designed to be an historical coming of age film is demonstrated at almost the very beginning, when the viewer is informed that it is the "last day of school May 28, 1976." However, the movie was much less consciously marketed as being a nostalgia movie than American Graffiti had, instead being pegged with the drug culture friendly lines of "See it with a Bud" and (in the wake of the Clinton 'inhaling' scandal) "finally, a movie for everyone who DID inhale!". Indeed, the film is filled with images of teenagers using marijuana. However, at its root the movie remains a coming of age tale, rather than a counter-culture pro-drug film. It follows the lives of a large and fairly diverse group of seniors and rising freshman on the last day of school and the night following. It is a coming of age tale for two age groups, those rising high school freshman who must undergo explicit ritual in order to move on and the older high schoolers (most especially the main character of Randall Floyd, the quarterback, played by Jason London) who are dealing with issues of conflicting values, independence, and their place in the world.
Other characters also engage in various forms of coming of age ritual. A small group of 'nerds' decide to go out and party like the 'cool' high schoolers. One of them ends up in a fight, another ends up making plans to go out with an older car mechanic who is friends with Randall and his group, while the last ends up kissing an entering freshman (thus helping to complete her rite of passage) in what may have been his first kiss. However, the main focus of the movie is on the coming of age of a rising freshman named Mitch and of Randall. Despite their best efforts, Mitch and his friends are unable to avoid a ritual paddling at the hands of the older high schoolers. Following his paddling, Mitch is taken out by some older boys and goes through two other coming of age events as he smokes pot and then makes out with an older girl, both for the first time. Perhaps more importantly, he is initiated into the high school culture within which he will live for the next 4 years. Mitch drives around with the older boys, especially Randall, and hangs out with them at the recreation center which the teenagers use as a kind of home base. Indeed, with the exception of the ritual paddling, Mitch fares quite well in his coming of age.
Randall must decide whether he will sign a form stating that he voluntary pledges not drink or use drugs for his football coach. His fellow players and coach want him to sign it (despite the fact that the other players who have already signed the form have no intention of living up to it), however Randall is bothered by what signing the form would represent about his own independence. Over the course of the night as he parties with both his football and his 'other' friends (who the football coach is very suspicious of due to the large amount of marijuana they use), he throws the form away multiple times, but it keeps getting brought back to him. In his frustration he even goes so far as to question whether or not he will even play football again next year. Randall's career as a high school quarterback has made him an important and powerful person in his teenager years, however, his coming of age in part involves a broadening of his interests and friend group. Given the importance which his football team has for the community (one old man tells Randall that "the whole town is counting on you boys") and his team mates, this questioning of his own life impacts the lives of others as well. He ultimately asserts his own independence by telling his coach that "I may play football... but I will never sign" the form.