Slacker didn't have a straightforward path to success. A screening at Seattle Film Festival showed some early promise, before it was rejected by Toronto and New York. A slot at Sundance saw the film overlooked for Todd Haynes's Poison and Paris Is Burning. Almost everybody was surprised when the $23,000 film went on to gross well over a million dollars at the box office, and more surprised yet when it became a cult classic for disillusioned kids everywhere—particularly those with an affinity to the Dr. Martens clad, plaid shirt wearing Gen Xers that the movie features.
Sure, tales of tribulation may not be unusual in filmmaking, but the non-linear path of Slacker's journey to screen fits so well here because it's the form taken by the film itself.
Slacker is unconventional all over, from beginning to end. That's if you can ascertain whether it really does have a beginning, a middle or an end. A series of episodic encounters present the residents of Austin, Texas, lounging about, not doing much. Most of the cast were amateur actors living locally, and director Richard Linklater gets things rolling by appearing as the first featured character. There isn't one leading protagonist, with a plucky buddy or a love interest simpering in the background. Those Austin residents, described as "a lot of people" on the cast description, are all the leads. Or, to put it another way, none of them are.
I discovered Slacker around the same time as reading Douglas Coupland's Generation X. The two should probably be sold as a package. Just as the dissatisfied characters that comprise Coupland's zeitgeisty manifesto turn their backs on the structured nine-to-fives set out for them, so Linklater's cast are met with the painful ennui of Austin. The shared interests of this book and film met with my own feeling of "is this it?" as I contended with the lackluster job market of the time.
In his opening monologue, Linklater tells the taxi driver, who picks him up at the station, that he could have walked or hitched a ride. He admits he probably should have, as he's kind of broke right now. Leaving the taxi, he happens upon a car accident, so he calls the police. A few moments earlier or later and he would have missed the incident entirely. The idea of there being a variety of paths to tread, and the consequences of each road (not) taken is raised from the beginning.
Once a character instigates or plays a role in a scene, they never reappear. Characters languidly wander off and you don't see them again. One guy leaves his flatmates a postcard detailing his absence, a bickering couple walk past an official "Missing" poster on their stroll—the theme of going missing returns more often than the characters do. It's a world of apparent lazy inertia, but not only are people actually moving, some are moving away altogether. It embodies that fear of slipping through the net—to have had promise that you haven't delivered on—while inviting you to do something altogether different.
Breaking with tradition, whether in life or film, is an ethos that finds expression in Slacker's recurring trope of destruction. When the gamut of gazing (navel/shoe, etc.) has been run, the film's introverted characters suddenly become wildly decisive, throwing a typewriter from a bridge and chucking a home movie camera off of a cliff.
I can't help but lament a broken video camera, but this isn't nihilistic destruction. The final footage in the film comes from the perspective of the discarded camera. There is doing in the undoing.
Likewise, the film's winding from one set of characters to another through chance encounters, with no overall goal and no single protagonist, deconstructs the traditional narrative of a film. Again, it's not destruction for destruction's sake. It creates something new, and that is liberating.
In an interview, Linklater discussed feeling an empathy for those 20-somethings who don't get a degree and then go straight into work—those who hanker after discovering a passion. His self-taught, DIY, "just-keep-filming-until-we-run-out-of-money-and-then-we'll-find-some-more" approach, as evident in Slacker, is comforting. Both Linklater and the film say that it's OK to not know where you're going—in spite of all fervent expectation to know right now, right this second: "What do you mean you don't know?"
You could say that Linklater threw the rulebook off the cliff with the camera, and in loosening the structural ties that bind, carved a different path to success. Twenty-four years later and one multi-award winning project, Boyhood, that took almost half that time in the making later, Slacker is still gaining acolytes.
Slacker is inspiration to keep on with those passion projects—to go your own way despite the pressure to conform. Above all, the film taught me this: Those who wander may not be lost.