Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Even when he’s just a writer, Cameron Crowe manages to tap into something honest about his characters and their lives in a way that is painful but also wildly entertaining. Given my love of “Jerry Maguire” and “Almost Famous,” it feels nearly criminal that it’s taken me so long to watch Amy Heckerling’s iconic adaptation of Crowe’s book, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (written based on Crowe’s experiences going under cover for a Rolling Stone article), but those are the breaks when it comes to having a Netflix Queue that’s full most of the time. It’s one of the films that many point to as a high point in the ’80s teen comedy boom, but the truth is, it seems to stand apart from many of those films just as much as it feels like one of them. It’s very funny, and very true.
Arguably the biggest breakout character in the film is Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli. As someone who has familiarized himself with the actor through his intense, acclaimed performances like “Dead Man Walking,” “Mystic River” and “Milk,” the idea of the two-time Oscar winner as a stoner surfer feels out of step with everything I know about him. And yet, I completely believe him in the role, and found his antics hilariously on-point, in the same way I believed him as a death row inmate, a tortured father, or a civil rights activist. He’s not simply a one-note character but fully formed, as is evident in a scene near the end where Mr. Hand (Ray Walston), a history teacher who has been aggravated with him all year, comes into his home to test him in his knowledge about history as a way of paying back all of the time Spicoli “wasted” Hand’s class over the years. I don’t think the teacher expected to be grudgingly accepting of his student at the end of their session, and watching Spicoli impress him while remaining the surfer dude he’s been throughout the film is a highlight that speaks to the gifts Crowe displays as both the original author and screenwriter. Penn and Walston play it perfectly, and it’s one of the best moments in any movie with Crowe’s name attached.
The film is much more than Spicoli, though, and centers around Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and her friends and family, as she navigates a year at Ridgemont High School. She’s trying to get through her sophomore year and wanting to explore her sexuality for the first time, and is encouraged to do so by her older friend, Linda (Phoebe Cates), who has a long-distance relationship with an older man. They both work at the pizza restaurant at the Ridgemont Mall, and one day, an older man comes in that gets their attention. Meanwhile, Stacy gets his phone number, and she sneaks out to go out with him, and she has sex. She gets some flowers from him, but after that, never hears from him again. Meanwhile, an employee at the movie theatre across the way at the mall, Mark Ratner (Brian Backer), is interested in Stacy, and tries to get advice from his friend, Mike (Robert Romanus), who is known as the guy who can get concert tickets for anyone. However, Mark and Stacy’s first date is awkward, and leads Stacy to set eyes of Mike instead. Just out of center of the story is Stacy’s older brother, Brad (Judge Reinhold), who is trying to be responsible and also cool, but keeps having a difficult time with the responsibilities of his job at the time.
All of the elements are there for your typical teen sex romp, but what we get instead is something truly insightful about the characters. (Although a generation is eternally grateful for Heckerling, making her debut as a director, giving them one of the great pieces of gratuitous nudity in cinema in that masturbatory fantasy of Cates exiting the pool and exposing her breasts.) Linda may seem like she knows everything when her and Stacy are talking about love, but even Linda has to give Stacy credit when she wants to commit to a relationship over just being sexually active. Mike seems to have his shit together, not only in Mark’s eyes but others, but when a night with Stacy leads to a serious consequences, we see through his facade plainly. Heckerling gets great performances out of her actors (there isn’t a fault in the cast), and the actors love the opportunities Crowe’s script gives them. It’s easy to see why it’s become such a beloved favorite for a lot of people over the years.