I loved almost every minute of my high school experience (particularly my senior year) but know I’m in the minority. Most movies about high school aren’t about what really happened but a fantasy of what we wish it were like. On the other hand, there’s Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as Stacy, a young teen whose growing interest in sex defines the best and worst moments of her sophomore year. While Stacy discovers hard truths about the boys she obsesses over, her best friend Linda (played by Phoebe Cates) seems to know all the angles, dating rituals and sexual techniques that mystify Stacy. Brad, Stacy’s brother (played by Judge Reinhold) has little time for his sister, as his managerial position at a fast food restaurant and hot girlfriend (Amanda Wyss of A Nightmare on Elm Street) seem to indicate great things ahead. Then there’s Jeff Spicoli (played by Sean Penn in his breakthrough role), a knuckle-headed surfer dude whose testy relationship with his teacher, Mr. Hand (Ray Walston), defines his eventful school days.
Heckerling’s film, which is now 35 years old, was released after the horny teens blockbuster Porky’s, before Revenge of the Nerds and just as John Hughes’ high school comedies began dominating the decade. Most movies about our eventful teen years portray (and even encourage) stereotypes, stock characters and clichés and pair everyone into clicks…it’s like these movies were made by their designated audience.
Fast Times At Ridgemont High is written by Cameron Crowe, who, at 22, famously masqueraded as a high school student, published a book on what he witnessed and turned it into a screenplay. His script is frequently hilarious but surprisingly raw at times. A frank abortion subplot doesn’t derail it and neither does the very-broad, wholly un-PC bit where Spicoli finds a way to lie and justify the destruction of a new car. There’s an unfiltered honesty here that you won’t find in Sixteen Candles.
In Heckerling’s hands, the hard truths about the acne n’ angst years aren’t black and white. The handsome, Most Likely To Succeed Overachiever is actually kind of a schmuck, the Hot Girl is more worldly than most are ready for, the Innocent Girl With a Heart of Gold takes stupid risks and the Class Clown is a riot but really, really stupid.
Penn is brilliant in this but Reinhold actually steals the movie playing an even funnier character. As if the main cast weren’t enough (Walston, Wyss, Cates and Leigh are wonderful), there’s also Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards and a sleepy looking Nicolas Cage in small supporting turns.
Heckerling’s and Crowe’s attention to key details makes the movie more honest and insightful than just about every other movie in its genre. Note how Leigh stares at wall graffiti during one of her bad sexual experiences. Watch Heckerling linger on the moments leading up to Spicoli’s historic first encounter with Mr. Hand. The filmmakers may not have known they were making a classic but they clearly understood their characters.
How important is it that a woman directed this and not a man? Let me put it this way: Heckerling’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Martha Coolidge’s Valley Girl are the only high school teen comedies from this decade that truly matter. The sensitivity, observant characterizations and authenticity of these films make them essential works. Heckerling’s film may have been made for younger audiences, but it still avoids formula.
How ’80s is this movie? In addition to the hairstyles, vernacular, music and carefree homophobia, there’s lots of video game arcade footage and a dreamy stud described as looking “as sexy as Richard Gere.”
Growing up in the 1980s, I devoured every movie Hughes made. Despite how important The Breakfast Club is and how much fun most of his other movies are, they’re all kind of a crock. If Hughes’ movies were the antidote to Porky’s, then Fast Times At Ridgemont High is the welcome alternative to Molly Ringwald ditching Jon Cryer at the prom over Andrew McCarthy. As if!
Fast Times At Ridgemont High plays Sunday, July 30 and Wednesday, Aug. 2 at 2pm and 7pm at the Maui Mall Megaplex.