Fast Times at Ridgemont High, originally released in 1982 and now debuting on Blu-ray, bridges the gap between American Graffiti (1973) and later teen raunch comedies like American Pie (1999). Every generation seems to have their own version, each attempting to realistically portray the lives of American teenagers. On many levels Fast Times at Ridgemont High accomplishes its modest goals. Though there’s not an overwhelming amount of substance to the movie, it’s an amusing (and occasionally poignant), look at suburban teenage life during a more innocent era.
Fast Times was directed by Amy Heckerling (her feature debut) and written by Cameron Crowe (his debut as well). Crowe spent a year undercover as a student at Clairemont High School in San Diego during 1979. Based on his experiences, he wrote Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story, published in 1981. The book was immediately optioned and turned into a film. Fast Times follows the lives of several high school students as they struggle with the awkward period between childhood and adulthood. Among the ensemble of mostly young unknowns, the standout performances come from Jennifer Jason Leigh as the fresh-faced Stacey and Judge Reinhold as her older brother Brad.
Stacy is a naïve freshman who is best friends with a popular and pretty senior named Linda (Phoebe Cates). The more experienced Linda doles out advice to Stacy about sex and boys, leading Stacy on a path to extremely poor decision making. Her brother Brad seems to be living a kind of teenage dream. He takes pride in his job at a fast-food place in the mall, his girlfriend is attractive, and his car is “almost paid for.” Brad’s teenage oasis starts to crumble as one bad circumstance after another shatters his idyllic world.
The best thing about Fast Times is the cast – perfect for playing these characters. Many viewers relate to the various personalities, which capture the atmosphere of real-life high school (for that era, at least). People often develop an attachment to kids that aren’t really even their friends, but rather they simply see them every day for four years. That aspect of life is captured quite well in the film. The characters feel familiar, like people you may have known in school. Mark “Rat” Ratner (Brian Backer) is a shy kid who has a crush on Stacy. His friend Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) thinks he’s a lot cooler and streetwise than he really is. Mike is Rat’s go-to guy for relationship advice, for better or worse. Of course Sean Penn makes the biggest impression as Jeff Spicoli, the stoner who might as well be in his third or fourth senior year.
Jeff Spicoli is hands down the most iconic character from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. As the quintessential stoner surfer dude, his most memorable scenes involve dealings with fed-up teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston, My Favorite Martian). Mr. Hand has clearly reached his limit with apathetic young students. He has a list of strict rules for his classroom, and Spicoli breaks every one of them. Mr. Hand doesn’t allow eating in class – Spicoli orders out for a pizza. But Spicoli doesn’t get the better of the veteran teacher; Mr. Hand has a few tricks up his sleeve as well.
Along with very early roles for Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, and Sean Penn, a number of other future stars can be spotted throughout the movie. Forest Whitaker plays Charles Jefferson, Ridgemont’s star football player. Eric Stoltz and Anthony Edwards portray Spicoli’s stoner buddies. Even Nicholas Cage (credited as Nicholas Coppola) shows up in a basically mute role (though the broadcast television version has speaking scenes with Cage). Martin Brest, the director who would soon have his breakout hit Beverly Hills Cop, turns up as a doctor. It’s fun and nostalgic seeing so many notable names in early roles, before anyone knew what their futures would bring.