It’s hard to believe that Amy Heckerling‘s Fast Times at Ridgemont High was released 31 years ago (as of last week). Having recently re-watched it, it is a film that, even though it was filmed in 1982, still has an exceedingly large deal of relevance to today’s youth. Without the dramatic edge that John Hughes‘ The Breakfast Club has, Fast Times at Ridgemont High is so infused with humor and jokes that even the serious topics that the movie covers (teen sex, drugs, relationships, abortion) are funny. That’s a pretty hard thing to do. Based on a book by then unknown film guy, Cameron Crowe, who went undercover at a high school in California to get the skinny on what kids at that time were doing, the film version is infinitely better than the book, which is one of the few times I can actually say that (The Player being the only other example I can come up with). This film is the early 80s in a nutshell, and we’re all better for it.
It’s hard to know where to start with this movie because so much of it worthy of mention. The basic synopsis of the film is as such: Kids in Ridgemont are bored, like in most places. They fill their time working shitty jobs, drinking beer, fucking and trying to get through high school. So here are the main players in the film:
Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold)
Brad: an all-american guy.
Brad is entering his senior year, has a great girlfriend, Lisa (Amanda Wyss of Better Off Dead fame) “who’s great in bed” but he’s a senior now. He’s a single, successful guy and he’s got to be fair to himself. And he needs his freedom…or so he thinks. When things go down the shitter for him, Lisa ends up dumping him. Turnabout is fair play, I suppose. After losing his job at All-American Burger, and dumping his gig at Captain Hook’s Fish & Chips, he finally finds his niche a Mi-T Mart. Well played, Brad. Shoot for the stars.
Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh)
I don’t want sex. Anyone can have sex. I want a relationship. I want romance.
Stacy, Brad’s sister, and the de facto center of attention in Fast Times, is a freshman who has been taken under the wing of senior Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates) and taught the ways to use her wiles to capture men. When this backfires at least twice, she reconsiders her approach. After a tryst with a 26-year old stereo salesman, a failed attempt to bag Mark Rather (Brian Backer), a nerd in her biology class and her subsequent seduction of his best friend, the slimy Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) which gives her an unwanted pregnancy, Stacy decides to cool things off. Probably for the best, young lady. Fortunate are we that director Amy Heckerling and musician Jackson Browne created an anthem, “Somebody’s Baby,” for Stacy to cue us into when she is going to get freaky. My 9-year old self thanks you for this.
Here’s Linda dispensing her sage-like advice for Stacy:
Hi Brad. You know how cute I always thought you were…
Adequately described above, Linda coaxes Stacy out of her shell and into womanhood. Linda is confident and beautiful and it’s no wonder Stacy flocks to her. Linda seems to think she has it all figured out – after graduation, she will move to Chicago with her fiancee Doug and they will walk through the world together. Well, that’s not how it works out, of course. Linda is the object of what might well be the most famous scene from any teen movie ever when she appears in Brad’s self-love fantasy (click the above image to see…be forewarned, it is not safe for work). The Cars’ “Moving in Stereo” still triggers memories of this scene to this date for me (and I’m sure many others who saw this film back in the early 80s and beyond) from the first strum of the guitar. Cates is a fine actress and was fun in both Gremlins films as well as Drop Dead Fred. It’s a shame that the most remembered part of her career will be this scene.
Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn)
Just like I told the guy on ABC…danger is my business!
Spicoli may well be the best character in film history. The guy is a non-stop highlight reel from his first appearance until the final scene of the film. Cameron Crowe, who wrote the film and the book it was based on, really captured something with this character. A surfer who has “been stoend since the third grade”, Spicoli pretty much hijacks the film. His epic back-and-forths with history teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) are the stuff that cinematic dreams are made of. Despite his battles with Mr. Hand, mutual respect is gained on both sides by the end of the film. One of the great mentor-mentee relationships on film. However, their first meeting will ALWAYS be my favorite scene in the movie:
Penn‘s delivery of the “You dick!” line is pitch perfect and it caused so much laughter the first time I saw this with friends (Lindells, surely you remember this?), that we rewound the VHS tape (yes, VHS) about 35 times and laughed equally hard each time. Mind you, this is a future two-time Oscar winner. There are so many clips I could post of him and it would probably never get old to anyone reading this. And of course that he’s drinking a Hamm’s whilst driving at 1:08 in this scene captured my heart. And who could forget his explanation of the American Revolution:
Bless you, Spicoli. Forever and ever, amen.
Well, naturally something happens. I mean, you put the vibe out to 30 million chicks, something is gonna happen.
Mark is the nerd who falls in love with Stacy upon first sight but is too chicken to ask her out, which is sort of an m.o. with him as we find out from his friend Damone. When he is finally able to go out with Stacy, he drops the ball when she is clearly ready to take a trip to Freakytown. So when Damone capitalizes on the chance, the two have a falling out (as one might expect). Of course everything is cleared up in the end and Mark, because he’s not a guy just trying to fuck anything that moves gets the girl in the end. Or at least that’s what the epilogue says. Good to see the nice guy finish first for once. Get yours, Rat. Prior to his Judas-like betrayal, Damone, much like Linda to Stacy, dispensed some very valuable advice to Rat. Take a look:
Damone, lothario of Ridgemont.
Damone is what he is and he can’t help that. A ticket scalper on the side, he plies his trade while doing his best to bed the ladies of Ridgemont. After betraying what appears to be his only friend when he sleeps with and knocks up Stacy, he is a ship with no captain, floating aimlessly, bearing the brunt of Rat’s hatred as well as Stacy and her friends. Why you ask? He skipped out on taking Stacy and paying for her abortion. What a guy, right? That anyone would want to hang out with him is crazy. But fellas, he is your cautionary tale – be like Damone and you will get shit on. A tough role to play and Robert Romanus played it very well. Shame it pretty much torpedoed any career he might have had. It’s pretty hard to overcome playing such a douche. Type-casting anyone?
As I’ve mentioned there are a bevy of first or near first appearances of very famous actors in this film. There’s Nic Cage:
There’s Anthony Edwards of ER fame and Eric Stoltz:
And of course, Forrest Whitaker:
By my count, there are 4 future Oscar winners that were a part of this film – Whitaker (Best Actor – Last King of Scotland), Cage (Best Actor – Leaving Las Vegas), Sean Penn (Best Actor – Mystic River and Milk) as well as Cameron Crowe (Best Original Screenplay – Almost Famous). Not a bad pedigree, eh?
One of the things that I appreciate most about this film is that even though the characters do shitty things (Damone) and try to figure out who they are, they are never judged for it. I specifically mean the treatment of the female characters, in particular Stacy, who is coming into her sexuality and see what fits for her. We never see her called a slut, we never see her put down because she is experimenting sexually. These days, there would have to be a moral of some sort attached or these scenes would be pulled all together. It also seems almost utopian in its treatment of race. Spicoli and Charles Jefferson’s little brother (Stanley Davis, Jr.) are good friends and clearly come from two separate worlds (who didn’t come from a separate world from Spicoli?). Charles Jefferson is worshiped as a God on the football field and met with gasps when he is seen in the community. While this is not a new concept, it’s hard to imagine that if this film took place in Alabama, Louisiana or even in my home state of Indiana at the same time, you would not find near the reverence as we see in this film.
Dazed & Confused,Thirteen and Superbad may be the only other R-rated teen comedies out there, or at least those worth watching. Nonetheless, they are few and far between, which is a shame. It’s hard to capture the essence of the high school experience in PG-13 since few, if anyone’s, experience is really PG-13. Fucking MPAA and their bullshit. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is one of the classic films of the 1980s, continues to endure and bring the laughs as I’m sure it will continue to do so for another 31+ years. While the fashion has certainly gone out of style, the situations depicted in the film have not. And Spicoli never ages, his wisdom never eclipsed.
Here’s the trailer: