Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a staple of 1980’s teenage cinema. Part of the ‘Teenage Kicks’ season at the BFI, this is where Cameron Crowe (who would go on to direct Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous) and Amy Heckerling (of Clueless and Look Who’s Talking) would get their start. The many cast members, including Sean Penn as a sweet stoner, would all use Fast Times as a springboard for successful careers following its release in 1982. What separates Fast Times from teenage films such as Porky’s, is the sense of sincerity and brutal honesty it seeks. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is purposefully explicit, but it highlights home truths that our teenage selves might find difficult to articulate. It begins the conversation about masturbation, abortion and sex amongst teenagers, with a playful tone to balance the seriousness of the issues.
The watering hole of these teenagers is Ridgemont Mall. Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Linda (Phoebe Cates) work in a restaurant, and sex and boyfriends are the only thing to talk about. Stacy’s brother, Brad (Judge Reinhold), works in a fast food joint whereby he’s popular and with a girlfriend (though he toys with the idea of breaking up to be more “free” in his final school year). Mike ‘Rat’ Ratner (Brian Backer) works in the cinema, while close friend Damone (Robert Romanus) is a ticket tout for local concerts. Damone, stylish and slick, offers advice to Woody-Allen-esque Mike. Mike is in love with Stacy from the first moment he sees her in biology class. Finally, we have Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) and his chums (including Eric Stoltz). They smoke all day and fall into school when they’re not dreaming of surfing and bikini-clad women, to the frustration of crusty old Mr Hand (Ray Walston).
These very vaguely interconnected stories are the focus point for the school year. 15-year-old Stacy sets the tone of the film as she uncomfortably asks Linda about sex, before sneaking out of her parent’s house to lose her virginity at ‘the point’ with an older man. What Fast Times at Ridgemont High deftly manages to do is observe these kids without judgement. There is a sense that the older man is a little creepy, and she caves to peer pressure from her friends, but Cameron Crowe doesn’t spell it out. A teenage audience may see the story in a completely different light. The final act even touches on the theme of abortion, and this darker tone is a subtle hint at the potential dangers at play in those precious teenage years. Cool and likeable characters are revealed as insensitive and thoughtless, while naivety and innocence can be influenced easily, with dire consequences.
In many ways, this isn’t a ‘story’ at all, more an insight and snapshot of (white, middle-class) teenagers in the early 1980’s. The scorn you could hold towards lazy, stoner Jeff is countered by his dreams and ambitions of surfing, and his reckless optimism (that even drives him to order a pizza as he sits in class). Within this single year, Jeff will do fine. Job-hopping Brad too, though fantasising about his sisters friend, has his heart in the right place.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High is first and foremost, good fun. There is no definitive moral to the story, and though it celebrates the sexual freedom of youth, it doesn’t seem to pack a punch when it surely could. Abortion, rather than an easy-fix to a flippant situation, is often a difficult process for any woman to go through. By the same token, Jeff’s disenchantment and lack of interest in education is often the case with many, and very few are lucky enough to still achieve the grades to continue. But these are concerns that negate the purpose of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It raised awareness at a time whereby discussing the issues would be taboo in and of itself. By not placing judgement or criticism, it opens the door to interpretation and places the ball back in your court. Teenagers are irresponsible and, rightly so, Fast Times at Ridgemont High has this reckless attitude at its core.
This post was originally written for Flickering Myth