Fast Times at Ridgemont High (United States, 1982)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Because Fast Times at Ridgemont High arrived in movie theaters during the height of the '80s "teenspoitation" era, it has often been unfairly lumped together with Porky's and its successors and copycats. In reality, Fast Times is smarter and more perceptive. While teensploitation movies thrived on juvenilia, sex jokes, and nudity, Fast Times, like Valley Girl and The Last American Virgin, is character-based and character-driven. As a result, the humor and nudity - and there are plenty of each (including one of the most popular topless scenes of the '80s) - are more honest. When the final cut of Fast Times was delivered to the Universal Pictures executives, they didn't know what they had. The film was unceremoniously dumped into 500 theaters in August of 1982, and proceeded to surprise everyone by grossing more than ten times its budget. It has gone on to become a much-loved VHS and DVD title, earning nearly as much in rental dollars as it did during its theatrical run.

Despite being directed by newcomer Amy Heckerling, Fast Times is most commonly known as "a Cameron Crowe movie." Crowe wrote the screenplay, based on a book he penned about his experiences when he went back to high school posing as a senior. The film shares characteristics with Crowe's later directorial efforts (Say Anything, Jerry Maguire), including sharp dialogue and a pop-heavy soundtrack. Heckerling's contributions to the project are often overlooked in the zeal to attribute Fast Times to Crowe. It's not all that different from what occurs with This Is Spinal Tap, the rockumentary directed by Rob Reiner that is often credited to Christopher Guest (who co-wrote it then went on to make a series of mockumentaries with a similar approach).

Fast Times looks at a year in the life of a group of students attending Ridgemont High during the 1980s. Having been a member of the generation portrayed by the movie, I can attest to its accuracy in both broad strokes and details. However, one would expect nothing less from a Crowe script. Whatever his flaws, he has a history of authenticity when it comes to dialogue and character interaction. There is one area where Fast Times, like many high school themed movies, courts artificiality: actor age. The majority of the kids in this movie are supposed to be between 15 and 18. The actors, however, check in at 21 (Sean Penn), 19 (Jennifer Jason Leigh), 24 (Judge Reinhold), 25 (Robert Romanus), 25 (Brian Backer), and 20 (Forest Whitaker). Only Phoebe Cates, at 18, and Nicolas Cage, at 17, were in the proper age range. In some cases, like Leigh and Backer, the illusion works. With Penn, Reinhold, and Romanus, it's a stretch to accept them as being high school seniors unless one believes them to have been held back multiple times.

The movie's standout character is Jeff Spicoli (Penn), who has become one of those oft-imitated movie personalities. Spicoli is a surfer, a slacker, and a stoner. When asked why he doesn't get a job, he responds: "All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I'm fine." During his senior year, he develops an ongoing feud with his history teacher, Mr. Hand (Ray Walston). This leads to several memorable confrontations (both inside and outside of the classroom) that indicate Mr. Hand may be the only one to get the upper hand on Spicoli.

Mark Ratner (Backer) is a high school virgin who is urged by his more experienced (but not necessarily more insightful) friend, Mike Damone (Romanus), to pursue a girl in his biology class who catches his eye. She's Stacy Hamilton (Leigh), who has decided to aggressively pursue losing her virginity. One that deed is done (with an older guy), she in interested in seeing if it will be better the second time around. Her older best friend, Linda Barrett (Cates), assures her it will be, so she decides to try with Mark. However, her forwardness scares him off - although the same cannot be said of Mike, who is more than willing to go after his buddy's would-be girlfriend. Meanwhile, Stacy's brother, Brad (Reinhold) is spending his final high school year working at fast food places, breaking up with his girlfriend, and fantasizing about Linda.

Fast Times is loaded with young talent. Some members of the cast would go on to long, successful careers while others would fade away. In the latter category are Backer and Romanus. This represented the career high-water mark for both of them. They're effective and believable in their Fast Times roles - Backer as the stereotypical shy nerd and Romanus as the guy who uses bravado to cover his insecurity - but both ended up filling supporting roles in TV series and indie movies. Cates took the path less traveled for an actress, making movies for about a decade after Fast Times then retiring to raise a family with her husband, Kevin Kline. Cates is still fondly remembered by Generation X males for her topless scene in Fast Times, which became the source material for numerous teenage masturbatory fantasies.

The most successful Fast Times alum is Sean Penn, who has gone on to worldwide acclaim. Taken in conjunction with his other roles, Fast Times illustrates amazing versatility. He is the perfect Spicoli, nailing every aspect of the character and becoming the movie's most memorable individual. Penn reportedly became so immersed in the role that even when the cameras weren't rolling, he demanded to be called Spicoli and never dropped the attitude. Whatever he may have done off-screen to fashion the on-screen man, it worked.

Jennifer Jason Leigh, who appears in some of Fast Times' most raw scenes (reportedly, she wanted to bare all but fears of an X-rating kept her pubic hair hidden), went on to become a daring and adaptable actress with a varied career that is still going strong. Likewise, Judge Reinhold achieved a measure of success by appearing in a number of high-profile family-friendly features. Other future stars who showed their faces in Fast Times: Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, Forest Whitaker, and Nicolas Cage (credited as "Nicolas Coppola").

The only veteran actor in Fast Times is Ray Walston, who represents the lone adult with significant screen time. Before appearing in Fast Times, Walston was known primarily as Uncle Martin the Martian in My Favorite Martian. This movie introduced him to a new generation, for which he would forever be "Mr. Hand." It's a distinction Walston embraced to his dying day, glad to be known for more than one part.

Although Fast Times is primarily a comedy, it doesn't shy away from dealing with serious issues. Its depiction of sex is true to life. We are privy to Stacy's first and second sexual encounters, and both are less than satisfactory. The first occurs in a baseball dugout at night. She gazes at graffiti on a wall and wonders when it will be over. The second transpires in a bath house and is over so fast she doesn't have time to wonder. Movies often romanticize teenage sex; Fast Times goes in the opposite direction - a direction more viewers are likely to identify with. The film also deals with abortion and betrayal. Neither is typical material for a "teen comedy," yet both are evident in Fast Times, where they are treated deferentially.

Today, many who graduated from college in the '80s identify Fast Times as a favorite teen film because it does so much more than other movies in its sub-genre. The film is far from perfect - the soundtrack occasionally chooses the wrong songs, there are times when the acting (especially by the supporting players) falters, and there are scenes (most of them throw-ways) that don't work. Aside from jump-starting so many promising motion picture careers (including Crowe, Heckerling, and members of the cast), Fast Times will always be remembered for one thing: showing respect for and insight into the members of its core audience, something that was as rare in the 1980s as it is today.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (United States, 1982)

Director: Amy Heckerling
Cast: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Robert Romanus, Brian Backer, Phoebe Cates, Ray Walston
Screenplay: Cameron Crowe, based on his book
Cinematography: Matthew F. Leonetti
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 1982-08-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1