Written by Cameron Crowe
Directed by Amy Heckerling
For years, if you’d asked me what was the defining teen movie in my life, I would have answered The Breakfast Club without a second thought. However, with the passage of more than twenty years since I graduated high school, I’ve gained a bit of a different perspective.
My memories of Fast Times at Ridgemont High from when I saw it last -probably sometime back in the eighties – caused me to dismiss this as a teen-sex romp along the lines of Porky’s, when in reality it really is so much more.
Set in California during the early to mid-eighties, the picture takes place at a crossroads in time. Sex was still safe (or so we thought), crack had yet to become an epidemic so drugs were still cool and funny, despite Reagan’s “War on Drugs”. Cameron Crowe was a young reporter for Rolling Stone Magazine (see Almost Famous) and was young enough at the time to blend in with high school students and wrote a book based on what he heard. He then adapted the book to the screenplay that became Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Cast with virtual unknowns at the time, the credits now read like a who’s who of Hollywood. Sean Penn had gained some notoriety for his role in Taps, and Ray Walston was fairly well-knows for his role in the My Favorite Martian television series, but other than that the majority of the cast wasn’t familiar to the public.
The film depicts a year in the life of various teens at Ridgemont High School. There are marked contrasts in these characters. Many of them are fairly responsible, having jobs and owning cars and trying to get through high school. At the same time, they are also still quite young and trying to make the transition between childhood and adulthood. At times they seem to be small adults dealing with problems such as getting fired from a job, yet at others they are still like children. They are still going on field trips, attending football games, and looking up tot he football player with the “cool car”.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is Stacy. At 15 years old, she’s just starting high school and desperately wants a boyfriend. Unfortunately, this leads her to take the bad advice of her friend Linda, portrayed by Phoebe Cates. She allegedly has a fiancee in Chicago, whom she talks about throughout the film but we never see. Linda doesn’t think sex is a big deal – it’s just “something you do” and Stacy follows this advice which causes her to lose her virginity to a 26 year old stereo salesman while staring up at Surf Nazi graffiti in the dugout of a ballfield. Not exactly what people dream about for their first time.
The boy she is really attracted to is Mark Ratner, portrayed by Brian Backer. Despite being a teen, Mark is looking for more than just sex from a girl – he’s mature way beyond his years. When Stacy attempts to seduce him after a date, he bolts from her bedroom. Frustrated, Stacy turns her attention to his friend, Mike Damone, who’s a con-artist and ticket-scalper extraordinaire, with dire results. On a side not, I can’t believe that we once paid $12.50 for Van Halen tickets!
Judge Reinhold is Stacy’s older brother Brad. He’s the assistant manager of a fast food restaurant. He’s thinking of breaking up with his girlfriend of two years so he can see what else is out there, but she breaks up with him before he has the chance. He also loses his job after a particularly bad day, and then spends the school year bouncing from one minimum-wage food-service job to another.
Sean Penn is Jeff Spicoli. He’s a burn-out who is just always looking for trouble. The first day of school he bursts forth from his VW Van in a cloud of smoke, and we’re not talking cigarettes. Only women and surfing hold any real interest for him. He functions as the main comic relief in the film (at a time when drugs and being stoned all the time did still seem really funny), while the more serious trials and tribulations of the rest of the cast take place.
Ray Walston is Mr. Hand, the only teacher given any real screen time. He’s determined to teach Spicoli whether he wants to learn or not. He’s one of the few adult figures in the film as most of the parents are not mentioned or just not shown at all. It seems as if the parents have abandoned the kids and they are left to raise themselves through these tumultuous years. Did it feel that way to me when I was a teenager? In many ways, yes.
What really stands out during the course of the film are the really good musical montage sequences as well as the soundtrack. There’s a lot of The Eagles, The Go-Go’s, Jackson Browne, and even Led Zeppelin makes an appearance courtesy of the relationship Cameron Crowe had with them. This was a time when certain bands didn’t allow their music into films, never mind commercials, and Zeppelin was notorious for that.
Though nostalgic for me, it’s a tough call as to how I would deal with watching this movie with my 13 year old. So much has changed in twenty years, that although I look at the film and see a lot of fun nostalgia, I’d worry about her interpretation of how things were at the time her mother and father were in high school.
Reliving our Fast Times at Ridgemont High contains interviews with various members of the cast and crew including Amy Heckerling and Sean Penn. It runs about a half hour and talks about Cameron Crowe’s book and his work on the screenplay. I’m definitely interested in reading the novel if I can get my hands on it after seeing this. There’s also a great deal of time spent on the stoner trio of Sean Penn, Eric Stolz & Anthony Edwards. The cast now seems to be a who’s who of Hollywood including Nicolas Cage (then known as Nicolas Coppola), Jennifer Jason Leigh, Forest Whitaker, and more.
Feature Commentary with Director Amy Heckerling and Screenwriter Cameron Crowe was pretty interesting. I actually watched the entire film again with the commentary when many times I start the commentary and it’s so uninteresting that I end up half listening or watching while I do something else. They talk not just about the movie, but also about the time period this is set in.
Hangouts of Rigemont High is an interactive map feature which gives information about various locations seen in the film. There’s also the Cast & Filmmaker Biographies, Production notes, Musical Higlights featuring the various terrific musical montages seen in the film and the Theatrical Trailer.
If you grew up in the early eighties, this movie is bound to bring up memories. Even if you can’t directly relate to anyone depicted in the film, chances are you knew at least people like some of the characters in high school.