FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982)

  • Director: Amy Heckerling
  • Writer: Cameron Crowe, based on his non-fiction book Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story
  • Starring: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Robert Romanus, Brian Backer, Phoebe Cates, Ray Walston, Scott Thomson, Vincent Schiavelli, Amanda Wyss, D.W. Brown, Forest Whitaker, and Eric Stoltz
  • Accolades: 2019 BBC Top 100 Films Directed by Women (#90)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Peackock, Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

We’ve gone over a few nostalgic Americanteen movies” on this site so far, including American Graffiti and Cooley High. Both of these movies were about going to high school in bygone times (i.e. the high school experiences of the middle-aged male filmmaker), mostly seen through rosy glasses. Fast Times at Ridgemont High sometimes feels similar, but there are several key differences. For one, it was directed, not by a middle-aged man, but by a 27-year-old woman, Amy Heckerling, making her feature debut. It was about people going to school, living, and working at the same time it came out (its soundtrack, including The Go-Gos, Talking Heads, Oingo Boingo, and Tom Petty, among many others, is just as much a time capsule juke box as in the other movies I mentioned, but at the time this movie was made these were actually all current hits). Also, where those movies viewed their high school experiences with intense nostalgia, Fast Times at Ridgemont High has sympathy for all its characters but clearly recognizes that their lives are not super glamorous. There’s a lot of sex in this movie, sure, but absolutely none of it is good sex. It even has the most matter-of-fact and undramatic presentation of a teen girl getting an abortion that I’ve ever seen a movie, something I was definitely not expecting when I sat down to watch it. Yet it remains so popular today that Stranger Things basically got the entirety of its most recent season from riffing on this movie.

Heckerling set out to make about as “realistic” a high school movie as she would be allowed to make in the early 80s, and succeeds at this more than she fails. Adding to this slightly-documentary feel is that the movie is based on a non-fiction book by Cameron Crowe, who as you may recall from our article on Almost Famous entered the working world early. He missed the end of high school, so decided to “go back” and shadow current high school students to “see what he missed.” Many of the weird details on this movie, like the kid getting pizza delivered to history class and then the history teacher giving out the pizza to everyone else in the class, are based on things Crowe actually saw. The movie was even sued by a guy claiming that the character of Mark Ratner (Brian Backer) was based on him, but the movie inaccurately made him “seem uncool.” The lawsuit settled out of court.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High tells the story of its teen ensemble, many of whom went on to become big name actors but were total unknowns at the time, over the course of one year of high school. They go on dates, go to class, go to work, think a lot about sex, and make dumb mistakes. None of them spend a lot of time worried about their futures, and most of them work to make ends meet. A lot of the movie is set at a mall, but not because everyone is just hanging out there… they’re all working there for minimum wage. A very young Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the fresh-faced and bright Stacy, who thinks it’s about time to start having sex but doesn’t have much of a plan beyond that. Phoebe Cates plays her apparently more experienced friend, Linda, whose boyfriend, we’re told, lives out of town. Mark falls for Stacy, but is given not-great dating advice by his friend Mike Damone (Robert Romanus), who wears sunglasses indoors a lot and spends most of his time trying to scalp concert tickets. Future two-time Best Actor Oscar winner Sean Penn makes his movie debut as the stoner Spicoli, as does Nicolas Cage (billed here as his real name of Nicolas Coppola), who plays a fast food co-worker of Stacy’s older brother (Judge Reinhold), all of whose actual dialogue ended up being cut. Numerous other now-familiar faces appear in medium-to-small roles, including Forest Whitaker as the school football star, Eric Stoltz as a stoner friend of Spicoli, and future ER star Anthony Edwards.

Heckerling, it seems, had an eye for casting. She also lends a fresh perspective to a high school sex comedy genre that, up to that point, had essentially been entirely from the male point of view. This was a time when financiers would stipulate that teen comedies have at least three views of breasts and a certain number of sex scenes when they signed on. This movie delivers these, but turns them around with a female perspective. Stacy gets her crush alone and they have sex, but he finishes within a few seconds while the romantic music abruptly cuts off. Her losing her virginity to a slightly older stereo salesman to whom she’s lied about her age (D.W. Brown) is played, not so much as a mistake, but an anti-climax. We see her looking focusing on graffiti about “surf nazis” above her head, with the whole thing played through her generally unimpressed perspective.

If there’s one scene people, particularly a subset of men, are familiar with from this movie, it’s the scene where Phoebe Cates, shot in the most glamorous way possible, exits a backyard pool, pulls off her bikini top, and kisses Judge Reinhold. This has become one of the more famous nude scenes in movies. But what people who haven’t actually watched the movie probably don’t know is that this fantasy is entirely in the head of Reinhold’s character as he masturbates. We cut from him to Cates getting out of the pool normally, looking uncomfortable because she “got water in her ear.” This is followed by her barging into the bathroom where Reinhold is jerking off in her search for some cue-tips, to his deep embarrassment. Here, Heckerling gets to both satisfy the expectations of her producers and very effectively get across her message that real life isn’t like Porky’s. Heckerling tried to balance things out by including male frontal nudity, as well, but the censors wouldn’t let her leave the footage in, saying that showing a penis would result in automatic X-rating, regardless of context.

Leigh is really, really great in this movie, she’s what makes the whole thing work, which makes it seem sort of a shame that it would be Penn who would become the immediate break-out star for his showier role. The studio, thinking the movie wasn’t funny enough, actually made them go back for re-shoots to include more of Penn’s character. His arc is mostly to the side, really: the main story of the movie is these two shy people, Stacy and Mark, who want to get together with each other but don’t know how to adult and don’t seem to have any connection with any adults in their lives. In fact, there are no parents whatsoever in this movie, a fact that surprisingly didn’t really occur to me while it was going on. 

This is a movie about people who don’t have those connections with parents or other mentors, trying to figure things out on their own. And both Stacy and Mark get terrible dating advice from their own friends. Mark’s friend Mike Damone is transparently a doofus, whose advice includes not letting a girl order for herself at a restaurant and that one should “always, whenever possible, play Led Zeppelin IV” while making out. But I’m not convinced Phoebe Cates’ Linda, with her “older boyfriend from out of town,” is any better than he is, though she always at least appears to be on Stacy’s side of matters. I spent most of the movie assuming that her boyfriend is made up, though there is a bit near the end where she cries when he isn’t able to make it to the dance and shows Stacy a very silly letter she has written to him that includes the line, “Adults do not treat each other in this manner.” But she very well could be faking the dance incident, too. At one point, while working with Stacy in the mall food court, she defensively says that when they have sex he “lasts 30 to 40 minutes” (the two of them are blithely cutting up an enormous salami for this whole conversation and it’s great). She tells Stacy to go after guys before the fact, but afterwards commiserates by pointing out they were never good enough for her (“You work at the best food stand in the mall!” she says at one of these points, with a great deal of conviction).

So I was really pleasantly surprised at how much I loved this movie, which I was expecting to be a kind of silly romp. For both American Graffiti and Cooley High I mentioned that it was weird today to see the “title cards at the end of a teen movie about the characters’ futures” trope played totally straight. This movie takes this trope and applies it to its own characters’ much more banal lives. The weirdo science teacher (the great character actor Vincent Schiavelli), we learn, has “gone back to coffee again,” while Judge Reinhold’s character is now managing a 7-11. In that spirit, I figured I’d close with our own “Where Are They Now” about the many actors in this movie.

Jennifer Jason Leigh’s career didn’t take off as much as it could have at first, but hit a second wind after her acclaimed role as a phone sex operator in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. In 2018, she received her first Oscar nomination for The Hateful Eight. Phoebe Cates went on to star in multiple Gremlins movies and married Kevin Kline. Sean Penn went even more up-market and married Madonna (they soon divorced), won those two acting Oscars, for some reason did a “secret interview” with infamous drug lord El Chapo, and today basically runs a lot of the coronavirus testing in LA, I’ve been told. Judge Reinhold appeared on Arrested Development as himself in a fake judge show, a la Judge Judy. Forest Whitaker, who doesn’t have much to do here except growl, won his own Oscar for The Last King of Scotland, but was also in Battlefield Earth. Robert Romanus had recurring roles on 80s TV series Fame and The Facts of Life. Brian Backer won a Tony for basically playing Woody Allen in a play by Woody Allen (honestly his character in this movie is not too far off from that). Eric Stoltz was initially cast in the Michael J. Fox role in Back to Future before being replaced a month into shooting. And Nicolas Coppola, under a pseudonym, can currently be seen hosting History of Swear Words on Netflix.

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