Can a teen movie stay relevant? A look back at ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’
“All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine.”
Released Aug. 13, 1982
Directed by Amy Heckerling
Teenage culture evolves at a rapid pace, and it’s because of that that even classic high school films become encased in amber after depicting the scene a few years after release. So how can we evaluate the relevancy of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High?”
“Fast Times” stands alongside “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Heathers,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Clueless” and “Mean Girls” as classics of the genre, all of which succeed because of their skill in depicting teenage culture in that time and place. They were also made before the advent of smart phones. At some point, you have to wonder what would be the point of sitting today’s teenagers in front of a screen to show them coming-of-age stories from decades past without feeling like The Onion dad forcing his kids to engage in all the cultural touchstones he grew up on.
So why do movies like “Fast Times” endure? Nostalgia is one way. Not only is it a movie many of us grew up on, a film that found a huge audience by reruns on premium cable and video rentals while featuring one of the first fantasy nudity scenes many boys memorized. Watching “Fast Times” now is literally nostalgia for another time, as it opens and closes at the Ridgemont Mall, a venue of commerce that occupied the social lives of many young Gen Xers. When we remember past eras, there is a tendency to focus on the happy memories and ignore the negative situations or working underneath, so as the Go Go’s “We Got the Beat” kicks in, the opening minutes of “Fast Times” is like giving neon candy to the middle aged adults of today.
Cameron Crowe, the prodigal Rolling Stone writer who went undercover at a real high school to capture the culture there for a book, scripted “Fast Times” (He would go on to write and direct his own films). Meanwhile, Amy Heckerling made her feature-film directorial debut with “Fast Times.” They are both well suited to craft a film grounded in emotional truth that avoids the broad stereotypes that litter so many other similar movies. “Fast Times” follows on the footsteps of “Animal House” and “Porky’s” as teen and college comedies focused on sex, but what elevates “Fast Times” above the others is the deliberate focus on a young woman’s journey into adulthood with her own desires. We’ll see in latter years that more filmmakers will give their teen women more agency, but it’s worth praising how well the approach by Heckerling here pays off for cultural memory.
Each of the half dozen teenagers we follow in “Fast Times” are fully fleshed out characters with performances that never fall into comic caricature, even when one of the people is a goofy, laid-back stoner. That to me is the secret of “Fast Times’” endurance and legacy: by focusing on the emotional core and not playing to the era’s jokes or clichés, we can still relate to their desperate journeys to becoming adults … or faking it until they get there.
The protagonist of the film is Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who wants to begin exploring sexual relationships. Her brother Brad (Judge Reinhold) is confident about his rising career in the fast food business, but hits a number of teenage life speed bumps. Ratner (Brian Backer) has a crush on Stacy, but can’t figure out a way to naturally connect with her. Damone (Robert Romanus) is a self-styled bookie and scalper, but isn’t nearly as revered amongst his peers as he thinks he is. They all cannot wait to get to the next step in their lives.
About the only character in no rush to get anywhere is Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn), who notes that all he needs is “some tasty waves, a cool buzz and I’m fine.” Everyone else is doing everything they can to present themselves as adults in control. The key to unlocking the movie is after Stacy and Demone’s impulsive sex session comes to a very abrupt half, and she’s relating the story to her best friend Linda (Phoebe Cates), noting it lasted 15 to 20 minutes, not 15 to 20 seconds as we know.
“That’s not bad for a high school boy,” Linda says, who suggests her boyfriend lasts all of “20 to 30 minutes.” The girls continue to talk as they cut slices out of a roll of baloney at their job.
The loose nature of “Fast Time’s” plot gives it more of a hangout feel, a proto-Richard Linklater film (his “Dazed and Confused” shares many spiritual connections to “Fast Times”). Heckerling is more interested in exploring the daily life of her characters, such as the implied hierarchal order of fast food employment, or getting tips on the best music to make out to. “Fast Times” never gets to the next plot point quickly, and in this instance, the film is better for it because it gives the actors room to embody their character. Penn, for example, brings a full portrait to Spicoli’s character that offers humor in the movie, but never treats him as a joke. When the pizza Spicoli had delivered to his class is taken away by Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) and given to the everyone else, I’d be hard pressed to name anybody who looked more emotionally hurt than Penn. Throughout the film, Spicoli has a test of wills against Mr. Hand, who is simply exasperated by the very existence of this teenage stoner who consistently shows up to his class late. As one of the only authority figures in the movie, Mr. Hand could have easily become the put-upon instructor we’ve seen in so many teen comedies, but he does care about the education of his students, no matter how baffling they may seem.
Every character in “Fast Times” is real. With a sincere focus on emotional honesty, Heckerling creates a film that becomes more relevant than many of its cinematic peers. My kids are about 10 years younger than the characters in this movie so I have no idea how connected they’ll feel to this if and when they do watch “Fast Times,” but my bet is that the truth of these teenagers will have a greater impact than dated jokes ever will.
The Legacy: In its era, “Fast Times” marked the beginning of teen comedies with more on its mind than just jokes. Notably, writer-director John Hughes would go on to film a number of movies that defined a generation, including “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Meanwhile, Heckerling would work on a few more films off and on before scoring an even bigger hit with 1995’s “Clueless.”
The Weekend: Summer might be winding up at the cinemas, but the other major historical release is Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” in 1979. Fresh off the acclaim and success of The Godfather films and “The Conversation,” Coppola spent years and millions in a famously troubled production, but made one of the all time great war movies in the process. There were also a number of notable comedies being released this weekend, including “Superbad” in 2007, “Tropic Thunder” in 2008, “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” in 2010 and “Crazy Rich Asians” in 2018.
Next Week: “Dirty Dancing”
Mark Ciemcioch is a writer and award-winning journalist who looks back on film history every week. Read past columns at www.ultimatemovieyear.com.