Since 1998, I have been maintaining a list of movies that I wanted to see. Sometimes these are all-time classics that passed me by, sometimes they’re genre classics that interest me. The list grows regularly and is currently more than 1800 movies long. Fogs has gone through and hand-picked several classic films for me to “fast-track” and review here. This is one of those films.
In terms of pop culture, I’m a child of the 80s. I was born in 1979, so the 80s were the decade I spent most of my formative years in. To this day, it represents a disproportionate amount of my movie, music, and TV viewing and collecting. But I was quite literally a child of the 80s. Not a young adult. Not a teenager. So a fair number of R-rated movies of the 1980s slipped past me due to age restrictions (my parents weren’t super-strict in that regard, but they didn’t go out of their way to expose us to those films either.) Fast Times at Ridgemont High was one such film. As I grew into adulthood, I started hearing about it more and more, and though I’m now long out of high school, I was glad to take the opportunity to catch this classic teen comedy.
Fast Times was the feature film debut of director Amy Heckerling, and a stronger debut couldn’t be asked for. The goals with a teen comedy are two-fold: first, to be funny, and second, to be relatable. Fast Times breezily sails past both these goals. Virtually all of the characters of the ensemble cast get multiple scenes and lines which provide laughs. This includes relationship and sex humor from the gossiping teenage girls, and work humor from Judge Reinhold’s Brad trying to earn a living while repeatedly getting the short end of the stick. Of course, the comedy standout has to be Sean Penn as stoned surfer Jeff Spicoli. If it’s possible to be over-the-top about being laid back, Spicoli is. It’s possible that Spicoli would become irritating on his own, but he’s given a foil in the form of history teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston). While the film never portrays Mr. Hand as being in the wrong or abusive about his position, the conflict between the two serves to keep Spicoli a sympathetic character rather than a nuisance to the other students. Plus, Spicoli’s explanation of the Declaration of Independence is a masterpiece of stoner erudition.
When it comes to being relatable, Fast Times succeeds through a broad look at the different personalities in high school. This way it ensures that everybody is familiar with at least some of the characters. If a viewer didn’t know a Spicoli, they probably knew someone like Brad, or Damone, or Stacey. Comparisons to American Graffiti are perhaps inevitable, and it’s definitely a spiritual successor to that film (albeit a bit more risque). While it takes place over the entire school year rather than graduation night, and isn’t the senior year for most of the characters, it has that same approach and feel to it. It’s a coming of age story, the same as its predecessor, and it takes the form of a series of vignettes rather than having a single narrative story. While there’s some degree of a plot line with the slow-developing romance between Stacey and Ratner (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Brian Backer), it’s fairly low-key and is just one part of the whole picture.
I suspect that is the main reason the film is so enduring, aside from the humor. It feels like high school. Everybody has their own story in high school, and that’s reflected in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, where those stories criss-cross and affect one another just as in real life. It has a vitality to it that a more prosaic approach to the subject might not. It’s impossible to picture a version of Fast Times that was only about Stacey and Ratner, or only about Brad, or only about Spicoli. That hypothetical film wouldn’t have the same flair as the real thing, and would probably not have endured quite as well.
Morgan R. Lewis writes about other classic (and just plain old) films at his own blog Morgan on Media.