Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

“You’re the one who told me I was gonna get a boyfriend at the mall.”

Fast Times Poster

Synopsis:
Teenagers at Ridgemont High School — including Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Linda (Phoebe Cates), Brad (Judge Reinhold), “Rat” (Brian Backer), and Damone (Robert Romanus) — navigate the tricky terrains of jobs, sex, relationships, and teachers.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Along with several other mainstream critics at the time of its release (see, for instance, Roger Ebert’s scathing one-star review), Peary is inexplicably dismissive of this comedic high school “expose” — based on Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical novel — which he claims “shows as much special insight as one would have from hanging out at the mall for about an hour.” In truth, Fast Times — which has since become a certified cult classic, and is listed in Barron’s 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die — offers a humorous yet realistic look at naive teenagers (such as Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Stacy) who are eager for sexual experience, yet utterly confused about how to protect themselves, both physically and emotionally. Peary dismisses the idea that a pretty girl like Leigh would be interested in “short, nerdy Brian Backer” (“that’ll be the day!” he notes parenthetically) while failing to recognize that Backer is actually Leigh’s best bet by far: he’s sweet, sincere, and ultimately interested in more than just sex. Meanwhile, Leigh’s dismal sexual exploits with an older man (D.W. Brown) and Backer’s conflicted buddy Damone (Robert Romanus) may not be pleasant to watch, but are certainly 100% realistic: anyone who fails to recognize the enormous pressure many teenage girls feel to lose their virginity and become “sexually experienced” is living in a protective bubble.

The other supporting performances in this episodic film (nobody’s really the primary protagonist, though Leigh comes close) are all fine as well — many of the young actors (most notably Leigh and Penn) went on to create big names for themselves. Indeed, Penn is in some ways the truly memorable “star” of this ensemble show: his turn as Jeff Spicoli — a perpetually stoned-out, bleary-eyed, happy-go-lucky surfer — is one of the most iconic performances in recent cinematic history; his “verbal duels” with his “sarcastic, rule-conscious” history teacher, Mr. Hand (Ray Walston), are both “hilarious” and perhaps (as Peary argues) “the major reason to see this film”. Meanwhile, one of the most sympathetic characters in the film, surprisingly enough, turns out to be Judge Reinhold as Stacy’s older brother, Brad, who’s experiencing work and love troubles of his own; his caring response when he discovers his sister needs some help is likely my favorite scene in the film, and offers proof that Fast Times — while far from perfect — is much more honest about the multi-faceted lives of teens than Peary, Ebert, and others would have you believe.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sean Penn as Spicoli
    Fast Times Spicoli
  • Jennifer Jason Leigh as Stacy
    Fast Times Leigh
  • Phoebe Cates as Stacy’s best friend, Linda
    Fast Times Cates
  • Judge Reinhold as Brad
    Fast Times Reinhold
  • Brian Backer as “Rat”
    Fast Times Backer
  • Robert Romanus as Damone
    Fast Times Romanus
  • Spicoli’s hilarious dream sequence
    Fast Times Dream

Must See?
Yes, for its status as a cult favorite, and for Sean Penn’s memorable performance.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)”

  1. A once-must (at least), for its cult status, its place in modern cinema history, and its overall unique quality as an ’80s flick.

    I had never seen this until now. No real reason why – there are many films I just never got around to, without giving them much thought.

    But I will admit that most episodic films about teens hold little personal appeal for me, mainly because they lean toward being cookie-cutter stuff, without much by way of lasting insight.

    ‘Fast Times’ stands out from many others of its type, in that regard. The way the film is shot and edited, it often comes off like stand-up comic material – many scenes seem to last 30 seconds to a minute. This is a ‘time in a bottle’ film.

    Obviously, I’ve always known about this film but actually read almost nothing about it over the years – so (happily) I wasn’t prepared for the way the script turns midway into slightly darker territory…in the sense that we suddenly see how life tosses some of these kids around in unexpected ways. It’s to director Amy Heckerling’s credit that the film stays true to the realness of its changing tones.

    (It’s also a welcome moment when Heckerling decides to show Reinhold’s bouncing butt when he’s washing his car. What male director would have done that?…and don’t women check out butts as well as men? ;) )

    In spite of the fact that ‘Fast Times’ is very much of its time, I think it has held up well.

    NOTE:
    The DVD has an interesting and lengthy ‘Looking Back’ extra – with most of the cast (Cates and Jason Leigh conspicuously absent) – and with Heckerling and producer Art Linson offering many fun stories (the latter making a point of letting us know that Universal Pictures hated the film and expected it to bomb when released).

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