Fast Times at Ridgemont High is loosely based on Cameron Crowe’s book of the same name, which were his observations of teenage life in southern California, based on going undercover as a high school student at 22. The project was the culmination of his work as a teenage journalist at Rolling Stone magazine, although the book was published elsewhere. Crowe would go on to write the screenplay (his first) with Amy Heckerling, who was considered a hot property by Universal Studios president Thom Mount on the basis of her student films at AFI. David Lynch, however, was the studio’s first choice! Lynch thought the script was funny, but as you may imagine, he turned the film down… however, he would go on to work with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Nicolas Cage in his future projects.
The ’80s were a hotbed for teen movies, with Heathers taking a grenade to the genre and forever changing it, especially the way teenagers speak in teen films. Fast Times at Ridgemont High really paved the way for all of the teen films that came in its wake. Universal probably thought they were getting a dumb teen sex comedy in the vein of Porky’s, but in reality it is a much grittier film than they expected. It’s not Over The Edge gritty, but it’s in a middle ground between that and the films John Hughes would soon start turning out, starting with Sixteen Candles in 1984.
The fact that Heckerling was this tough punk rock girl from the Bronx no doubt helped the film. She would, however, have a serious fight over the soundtrack, which mostly consisted of mainstream rock from Stevie Nicks, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty and Don Henley. She was able win the producers over with new wave tracks from The Go-Gos (their “We Got The Beat” brilliantly opens the film), The Cars and at the end, Oingo Boingo, but she really wanted Fear and the Dead Kennedys on the soundtrack. At the time, Crowe didn’t totally get punk, and in an end-of-the-decade poll in Rolling Stone wrote “If punk is any indication of the alternative, I’ll stick with the Sixties wimps.”
The film is about an ensemble of teenagers in the San Fernando Valley over the course of a year of high school, for most of them their last. It’s funny, but it’s not a total laugh riot and there is some dramatic heft at times. The subplot about Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Stacy Hamilton having to get an abortion after she has sex with another one of the characters who ejaculates very quickly, who then doesn’t show up to be her ride or give her the 75 bucks he said he would pay for the procedure still packs a punch. Very few teen films today dare to broach the subject of teen pregnancy, never mind ones made in 1982—even Juno has been perceived by some as a “pro-life” film, and that film’s screenwriter, Diablo Cody, has said wouldn’t have written it if she had anticipated the confused messaging and misconceptions that would arise. All the sex scenes in Fast Times are also seen from Stacy’s point of the view and not the boys’, which makes it fairly unique for a teen film, or a Hollywood film in general.
It’s often said that casting is half of the job of directing, and Fast Times boasts a cast you will kill for then, and would still kill for. The most iconic role is of course Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli, one of the greatest on-screen stoner performances in history. Penn’s Spicoli influenced everything from Bill & Ted to Kevin Smith’s oeuvre to even Jeff Bridges’ The Dude in The Big Lebowski. Sean Penn would go on to become one of the most acclaimed actors of his generation in almost exclusively serious films, rarely dipping his toes into comedy again—but you only need the one perfect role. He based it on a real guy he knew growing up in Santa Monica, who Penn by happenstance ran into a few years ago. Yes, Spicoli is alive and well, married with kids, and according to Penn seemed to be a businessman of some kind. When they made the film Penn was so intensively into character he only responded to the name Spicoli.
The rest of the cast includes Phoebe Cates as Stacey’s best friend Linda, and the daydream Stacey’s brother Brad (Judge Reinhold) has about her whilst masturbating is reported to be the most rewound scene in VHS tape history. Nicolas Cage was 17, so he couldn’t have a bigger role due to child labour laws. He is credited as Nicolas Coppola, as the film arrived before he changed his last name to Cage after his favourite Marvel Comic Book character Luke Cage. Eric Stolz makes his debut in this film, as like Cage, Anthony Edwards and Forest Whittaker, it’s a fun bit part.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High remains a highwater mark for the teen comedy boom of the ’80s, helped enormously by a funny but realistic script from Crowe. It remains easily one of his best works, with only Almost Famous really giving it a run for its money. It’s Heckerling’s best film—she would go on to make a very mixed bag of comedies, with her memorable and Beverly Hills-set high school film Clueless (which was a reimagining of Jane Austen’s Emma) being her other most acclaimed film. We also have Fast Times to thank for giving the world the California Klaus Kinski himself, Nicolas Cage, which we should all be eternally grateful for.
Criterion’s release is excellent, but did miss a serious opportunity with this release to republish Crowe’s long out of print source novel as part of the package, which goes routinely for a couple hundred. The previous Heckerling/Crowe commentary and 40-minute retrospective documentary were originally released on the 1999 special edition DVD and have been on every release since. The new additions are the TV version, which includes plenty of alternative footage; a 1982 AFI talk from Heckerling; and a new conversation recorded remotely with Heckerling, Crowe and Booksmart‘s director Olivia Wilde. Booksmart is a cute film, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Fast Times and is very unrealistic. The booklet includes an essay from critic Dana Stevens and a newly written intro from Crowe.