Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) — Before Clueless, there was Ridgemont

fast times at ridgemont high

“When it comes down to making out, whenever possible, put on side one of Led Zeppelin IV.”

Drake’s rating: Two Spirit Bunnies and a cruising vessel

Drake’s review: I was in high school when Fast Times at Ridgemont High hit the big screen, which gives me some idea of the accuracy of the teen-age culture that the movie was attempting to represent. My verdict?

It was kind of scary how accurate it was.

Did we have stoners? Oh, my, yes. There was no hotbox masquerading as a van (in fact, no one really drove a van at that point… the ‘70s were over, man!). But weed was common and prevalent. In my physical chem class, I was at the table in the back with the bunch who would literally spread grass out on the screen above the Bunsen burner, light it up, and then inhale the smoke through the rubber tubes so kindly provided by the school. The teacher looked up occasionally, sniffed the air, shrugged, and went back to grading papers.

Did we have a car crash through a construction zone? Yes we did. A girl who had been given a new Camaro for her birthday came off of the freeway one night without paying attention, blasted through a warning sign, and dumped her car into the 50’ long trench that had been dug out to prepare for a new on-ramp. Fortunately she was fine, but the car didn’t make it. RIP, Birthday Camaro.

What else rang true? Well…

  • THAT teacher. You know the one, convinced that every kid was on drugs? Yup.
  • The kid working a succession of worsening jobs to pay for a car? Check.
  • The unplanned pregnancy and discrete abortion? Of course.
  • The ticket scalper? Well, no. We didn’t have one of those. But that was because rock concerts had been banned from the area since the mid-70s, when a ZZ Top show had resulted in a few “drug-related arrests.” That drug being marijuana, of course. The demon weed. The Devil’s lettuce. That thing that leads to Reefer Madness. Banning rock concerts didn’t cut down on marijuana use, it just moved it off of the streets and into the chemistry class.

Watching the film in 1982 was a strange event, as it literally replicated the experiences many of us were having during that time. Unlike Dazed & Confused and American Graffiti, both of which looked at those halcyon days of youth some 15 years later, Fast Times was not reflective. It was current. It was contemporary. That’s what made it so effective.

Director Amy Heckerling and writer Cameron Crowe (adapting the script from his own novel) tell the story of a single year of high school through a series of scenes, zooming in on Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli for a confrontation with his educational nemesis Mr. Hand (Ray Walston), before cutting to Phoebe Cates’ closet virgin Linda trying to give sex ed instructions to her friend Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), then cutting away again to a dismal pep rally where the rally girls complain about being called “Spirit Bunnies” as an indifferent student body looks on. The scenes never linger, instead moving through the year in a montage of decidedly unsexy sex, demoralizing fast food jobs, disturbing biology classes, and life at the mall.

Ah, yes, the mall. Synonymous with ‘80s teens, Fast Times was, alongside Valley Girl, the first of the ‘80s movies to showcase the shopping mall as the place to be. Filled with fast food, arcades and stores galore, the shopping mall was to the 1980s teen film what the diner and the pizza place had been to the hot rod and surf films of the fifties and sixties. It was the place to hang out, watch a movie, see some friends, and avoid the parental units.

It was also fun to do donuts in the parking lot late at night, then zoom away as security showed up in their little red Chevettes (yes, they were, and yes, we made up a song about them), yellow lights flashing, to give valiant but ultimately futile chase.

The film begins at the mall, the Go-Go’s playing as the teens arrive to shop, slack or work. Stacy and Linda sweat away at Perry’s Pizza while Mark “Rat” Ratner (Brian Backer) opens the theater and Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) hawks concert tickets. And it ends there as well, the movie circling back as the summer begins, bringing with it a new batch of teens with their own stories to tell.

But for me, at least, none would ever be so hauntingly familiar as those from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The movie stood out for us at the time because it didn’t try to sugar-coat our experiences through a John Hughes-filtered lens. If it was stupid, it’s because we were stupid. If it was funny, it’s because we were funny (and not necessarily intentionally). If it was a little sad, it’s because sometimes we were a little sad as well.

It’s a movie I still watch with fondness, because it never lied to us and told us that we were going to somehow break through the social barrier and become the popular kids. It never gave us a hug and told us that we were destined for greatness. At most, it gave us a pat on the head and said, “You’re OK.” And sometimes that’s all you want to hear.

Now all I need are some tasty waves and cool buds, and I’ll be fine.


Justin’s rating: About as fun as wedgies in gym class

Justin’s review: In every generation (since the ’60s, at least), teens are defined by certain special movies. These movies often mean a great deal to that generation — they UNDERSTAND, man, what we’re going through — and are simultaneously incomprehensible to everyone else. Depending on who you talk to in Generation X, our defining “teen” movie would most likely be either The Breakfast ClubFerris Bueller’s Day Off or Fast Times At Ridgemont High.

I don’t think that Fast Times is a good pick for a defining film. It’s a very uneven balance of comedy and early ’80s teenage angst that does not hold up that well over time. Instead of having any progressing plot, so to speak, the film splits into several storylines that follow California teens over the course of a year. There’s Brad (Judge Reinhold) who is seeking a direction in his career. His sister, Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), has difficulties in her love life, ends up pregnant, and gets an abortion. Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn), is the film’s only totally comic character, is largely there to spout surfer speak.

I suppose I’m not a huge fan of Fast Times because it strikes a little too close to home. I want to enjoy a movie, not rehash high school years of hell and torture. As I said previously, this movie is very uneven, and the drama and comedy just don’t balance out as well as they should. I feel bad for laughing at a character who gets shafted in the next scene. But there are moments of *fun*, at least, and when the film lets itself go, I enjoyed the ride.

For a teen movie, it contains a harsher light than most ’80s teen flicks. For one thing, the R rating is certainly deserved, with nudity, violence, and a whole lot of naughty language. It feels… like it’s trying to be edgy to feed the rebellious nature of its teen audience. And 7

While I do love me a good ’80s teen movie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High is one I’d rather forget.

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