Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Screenplay : Cameron Crowe (based on his book)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1982
Stars : Jennifer Jason Leigh (Stacy Hamilton), Judge Reinhold (Brad Hamilton), Robert Romanus (Mike Damone), Brian Backer (Mark "Rat" Ratner), Phoebe Cates (Linda Barrett), Sean Penn (Jeff Spicoli), Ray Walston (Mr. Hand)
In the early eighties, a 22-year old reporter for "Rolling Stone" named Cameron Crowe did a very odd thing. Curious about what life was really like in a contemporary American high school, he decided to go undercover and pretend to be a teenager. He spent an entire year infiltrating a Southern California high school, making friends with a large group of kids and writing down everything he could. When the year was up, he identified himself and his purpose to his newfound friends, and they allowed him to conduct further interviews to flesh out the details. The result was a slim, but entertainingly informative book called "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."
The book was optioned for a film before it even hit the bookshelves, and a year later, first-time director Amy Heckerling had the movie in theaters. Unfortunately, while the book is poignant, painful, and sometimes funny in its unrepentant honesty, the movie is not. Few things have been changed in the transition from paper to screen (Crowe penned the screenplay himself), but the movie suffers because it doesn't emphasize the fact that these are real people and real events. Therefore, the film slips several notches and almost got lost among all the brainless teen comedies of the eighties.
The saving grace of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" turns out to be the wonderful performances by a cast of then unknowns. Although his role is really nothing more than a glamorized cameo, Sean Penn made himself into a bonafide movie star with his uproarious turn as the imminetly likable surfer Jeff Spicoli, who is famous for being stoned since the third grade. Penn has a huge presence in the film, and every whacked line he utters resonates with the sheer hilarity that he fully believes in what he says. While on the phone, he starts hitting his head with his shoe, proclaiming to his friend, "Listen this this -- that's my skull, dude! I'm so wasted." And you believe him.
But the heart of the film lies in a love triangle -- or actually, it's more of a square, sort of. You know how these high school things are.
Stacie Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a naive freshman who wants desperately to be sexually experienced because everyone else is. At the behest of her older, more outgoing friend Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates), she throws her virginity away on an older stereo salesman in a particularly uncomfortable scene that takes place in a baseball dugout. The whole time Stacie stares up at the ceiling, and you can tell that she isn't enjoying what she's doing, nor is she proud of it.
Meanwhile, Brian Ratner, a.k.a. The Rat (Brian Backer), a very shy and rather clumsy kid with a terribly nice disposition, has his eye on Stacie. He's the kind of guy who's too nice for his own good, and seriously lack in self-confidence. His more outgoing, accomplished friend is Mike Damone (Robert Romanus), one of those guys who talks much more than he should about things he doesn't know much about. He exudes confidence and superiority, but it's mostly just an act. However, to a guy like Ratner, he knows his stuff, therefore he's someone to take seriously. The upshot of the whole situation is that Stacie and Ratner are meant to be together, but things get unnecessarily confused because they listen to their friends too much.
There are several other characters interspersed throughout the film, including Stacie's older brother Brad (Judge Reinhold), who takes particular pride in his job at the local burger joint, and Charles Jefferson (Forest Whitaker), probably the only black student at Ridgemont who also happens to be the most sought after football recruit in all of California.
And then there's Mr. Hand, the high school teacher everybody had and everybody hated. Brought to life with wonderful resilience by Ray Walston, Mr. Hand comes alive because he honestly doesn't understand why none of the kids are interested in his history class. "What are you all on drugs?" he asks, thinking the question is rhetorical. Mr. Hand is determined to make decent citizens out of his class of slackers, and that's what makes him so intolerable.
All the elements of a sincere exploration of adolescents are here, but Heckerling is too unwieldy in her direction. The film never manages a consistent tone, and it wavers between harsh realism and bawdy vulgarity. "Fast Times" deals with a number of controversial subjects, including masturbation, drug use, adolescent sex, and abortion, yet it goes about them through completely different approaches. The masturbation, drug use, and sex are used as embarrassing jokes, while the abortion scene is stifling and uncomfortable in its realism. It's not that either of these approach is inherently bad, it's just that they don't coexist well in the same movie.
Still, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" remains a staple of Hollywood cinema, certainly one of the best of its genre. It has all the earmarks of a film made in 1982, including a soundtrack with the Go-Go's, an intense love of shopping malls, and those unforgettable eighties hairstyles ala Pat Benatar. However, unlike most films of its type, it transcends some of its shortcomings because it sees its characters as real people because they were real people. I just wish Heckerling has been more consistent with Crowe's screenplay, and decided exactly what she wanted to do with the material before she let the cameras start rolling.
©1997 James Kendrick