Following my article on American Graffiti, here’s a look back at another coming-of-age film, one that is also firmly lodged in its respective time period. But unlike Lucas’s Graffiti, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), directed by Amy Heckerling and written by Cameron Crowe (based on his book), is set during the same time period it was made. The film stars Sean Penn (one of three Best Actor Oscar recipients in the film, along with Forrest Whittaker and Nicolas Cage), Judge Reinhold, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, alongside a large ensemble cast.
Reflecting the era in which it was made, Fast Times can’t truly be considered equal to Graffiti in terms of nostalgic attention to detail. That said, Heckerling’s film is still a valuable document of teenage life in the early 80s, and it does a good job capturing the essence of the culture. The opening scene is quintessential 80s; set in a mall, checking out the ‘foxes,’ surfers and stoners playing on arcade machines, scalpers selling tickets to Van Halen concerts. With this opening, it would have been easy for the film to fall into almost laughable territory, conforming to every 80s stereotype. However, even with Penn’s Jeff Spicoli, the archetypal permanently high and almost-permanently topless surfer, Fast Times manages to remain memorable without becoming cliché and cringe-inducing (for the most part).
Admittedly, it’s not a flawless picture. Some of the dialogue and jokes haven’t aged as well as most of the film, and some of the music, most notably Jackson Browne’s contribution, “Somebody’s Baby,” is repeated incessantly to the point of nausea. However, these minor indiscretions are heavily outweighed by the film’s charm and entertainment value.
On the face of it, Fast Times really is a recipe for longevity disaster; as well as the aforementioned problems of adhering to numerous stereotypes, there’s also some vaguely alarming shifts of tone. Comedy is prominent throughout, with Penn and Reinhold the main proponents; thanks to Phoebe Cates’ infamous pool scene, it would be fair to expect a lighthearted teen flick. That is, until one character is forced to decide whether or not to have an abortion.
In the hands of a less able director, Fast Times may well have become mired in its attempts to tackle both light and dark sides of the teenage experience. However, Heckerling, who would write and direct Clueless (1995), rises to the challenge admirably, portraying teens in a manner in which those watching the film can relate to that age: They’re youthful enough to enjoy messing around and having fun, but adult enough to deal with serious issues. This refreshing, mature depiction is the key to the film’s lasting impact and popularity.
The teens in Fast Times put those shown in comparative modern films (like American Pie) to shame. They’re considerably more relatable — key character Mark Ratner (Brian Backer) is the staple “awkward” guy, nervous and shy without ever feeling the inexplicable urge to masturbate with the aid of a freshly baked pie. The sparring between Spicoli and his teacher-nemesis Mr Hand (legendary Ray Walston) is enjoyable, ends surprisingly amicably, and never resorts to either the Ferris Bueller school of thought on teachers (“Bueller… Bueller…”) or the saccharine-drenched motivational “educator” seen in countless films since.
The female characters actually have an active role to play, rather than being relegated to the eventual trophies to be claimed by the male characters of various frat films. Stacey’s (Leigh) story is about losing her virginity, but, unlike the guys in American Pie, it’s a choice she contemplates, rather than being the all-eclipsing necessity it’s shown to be in the later film. As Linda (Cates) says, “It’s no huge thing; it’s just sex,” something Hollywood seems to have forgotten, feeling the turn it into a high-pressure competition for the teenagers on the screen and, as a result, some watching.
The trailers for Fast Times at Ridgemont High claim it is “everything you always wanted to do in high school, with everyone you always wanted to do it with,” but this promise is doing the film a huge disservice. Beneath the latex-and-legwarmers 80s facade is a film that presents a far more realistic tale of high school life than most popular attempts since.