Although teenage comedies had existed for years prior, Fast Times at Ridgemont High feels like the archetype of the high school comedy we know today. The story behind the creation of Cameron Crowe’s screenwriting debut is almost as famous as the feature itself. During his formative years, Crowe was the prodigal reporter for Rolling Stone and spent much of the 1970s interviewing artists such as Led Zeppelin, The Who, and The Eagles. At the age of 22, he proposed the idea of going undercover as a high school student for one year while documenting his experience. In the fall of 1979, he enrolled as ‘Dave Cameron’ at Clairemont High School, San Diego, where he spent a year and befriended the students while observing the details of teen life. In 1981, he then released the novel Fast Times At Ridgemont High: A True Story, and the following year Universal Studio’s acquired the rights and hired Crowe to adapt it for the big screen.
Loosely structured around a series of interrelated characters, Fast Times at Ridgemont High takes place at the beginning of a new school year. Mark ‘Rat’ Ratner (Brian Backer) is a teenage virgin urged by his more experienced friend, Mike Damone (Romanus), to pursue a girl in his biology class. That girl is sweet Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who has decided to explore her sexual urges and follows the advice of her more experienced best friend, Linda (Phoebe Cates), to lose her virginity. Cajoled by his friend Damone, Rat plucks up the courage and asks Stacy out on a date and, embarrassed, she accepts his proposal although her forwardness may scare him off. Meanwhile, Stacy’s older brother and high school senior Brad (Judge Reinhold) struggles to keep his job at All American Burger, while stoner Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) enters a war with his history teacher Mr Hand (Ray Walston).
Fast Times at Ridgemont High introduced an ensemble of young actors who’d go on to become indie darlings and Academy Award winners. Jennifer Jason Leigh (Possessor) gives a delightful performance as Stacy, the virgin desperately trying to find her first love. Phoebe Cates (Gremlins 2: The New Batch) is also great in what was her most popular role to date, playing a confident young woman offering plenty of terrible advice about men. Leigh and Cates have excellent chemistry and create a likeable pairing. Additionally, Brian Backer (The Burning) is hilariously awkward as Rat, playing the ‘shy teen with a crush’ stereotype that was imitated numerous times since. Mike Romanus (Pulse) is comical as his smooth-talking best friend Damone, a skirt-chasing ticket scalper who uses bravado to cover up his insecurities. Judge Reinhold is also hilarious as Brad, the popular athlete who spends most of the year flipping burgers, and he’d go on to land numerous roles in the 1980s—most notably Beverly Hills Cop (1984). Other future stars who show up include Forest Whitaker (How it Ends), Eric Stoltz (Pulp Fiction), Anthony Edwards (Miracle Mile), and Nicolas Cage (Willy’s Wonderland).
Standing out amongst the crowded hallways of Ridgemont High is Sean Penn (The Game) as Jeff Spicoli. He’s hilarious as the Californian surfer whose rebellion against authority and peaceful bravado makes him impossible to dislike. Delivering an iconic performance, Penn infuses the character with a gentle nativity that’s incredibly appealing. Spicoli can persuade his friends to walk topless in restaurants and steal their brother’s car for joyrides without trepidation. Surprisingly, during his audition, Penn didn’t appear to be suited for the role. In Art Linson’s memoir What just happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales From The Front Line, the producer stated “he was barely audible, turned red and said ‘I don’t really like to read’”. Yet despite a seemingly disastrous audition, Penn somehow convinced the producers he’d be perfect for the role. Influenced by Crowe’s material and the childhood acquaintances from his hometown Malibu, the actor fully inhabited the teen lifestyle and arrived on set wearing a sun-kissed wig and Hawaiian shirt, with iconic checkerboard Vans plimsolls. Reportedly, Penn became so immersed in the role that he demanded to be called Spicoli on-set and even created an answering machine message in character!
Aside from his thick Californian drawl and signature looks, what makes Spicoli so unique is his optimism and creative attitude. Unlike many of the other characters, he doesn’t project arrogance, jealously, or intimidation. There’s something blissfully aspirational about his lack of awareness that makes the character bewildering yet admirable. Spicoli’s sole ambition is surfing, smoking cannabis, and ordering pizza to Mr Hand’s History class. As he famously affirms “all I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine”. Every moment he appears, Penn’s deadpan performance lights up the screen. It’s been almost 40-years since the release of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Spicoli remains the most influential character. Penn’s breakout performance cemented the character as a cultural icon, whose presence echoes through the years in other characters—from Slater in Dazed and Confused (1993) to Floyd in True Romance (1993). When James Franco was preparing for Pineapple Express (2008) decades later, he claimed he watched Fast Times at Ridgemont High “at least 20 times.”
As she’d demonstrate a decade later with Clueless (1995), Heckerling’s unerring eye captures the tumultuous life of high school. In her directorial debut, Heckerling glides through a year at Ridgemont High with staggering ease and naturalism. She succeeds at building its setting and engrossing audiences into the life of an ’80s American teenager. Where Fast Times at Ridgemont High excels is the authentic depiction of the adolescence dealing with adult problems. While films including American Graffiti (1973) and Dazed and Confused depicted youth on the verge of adult responsibilities, Heckerling places the characters in the midst of them. From Brad losing his coveted job that pays for his car, to Stacy leaping into her first intimate encounter, each character has their own crisis while trying to navigate through their formative years. Without adhering to cliches and focussing on the emotional core, their desperate journey to become adults is relatable. Heckerling presents them with such sincerity that even the imperfect characters including Spicoli and Damone aren’t treated with disdain.
Written by Almost Famous (2000) director Cameron Crowe, Fast Times at Ridgemont High still sparkles with wit and intelligence. While being incredibly quotable (“Aloha, Mr Hand!”), it perfectly captures the tiny nuances of high school like few others films did. Whether it be Stacy practicing oral sex with a carrot, or an entire class sniffing the freshly-printed test papers, almost every scene features character beats that are hilarious, compelling, and feel authentic. One of the funniest scenes occurs when Damone is giving Rat dating advice. As a part of his “Five-Point Plan”, Damone instructs his friend “when it comes down to making out, whenever possible, put on side one of ‘Led Zeppelin IV’. The scene immediately cuts to Rat driving Stacy to a restaurant, blasting Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” from their “Physical Graffiti” album. Crowe’s script depicts numerous embracing moments of honesty. Like he would later demonstrate in his directorial debut, Say Anything… (1989), Crowe speaks to something universal in us all. He perfectly captures the harrowing pitfalls of youth and falling in love for the first time. Leading the way for decade’s worth of bittersweet teen comedies that defined a generation, including John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club (1985) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).
Arriving at the height of the ‘80s “teensploitation” era, Fast Times at Ridgemont High is frequently and unfairly associated with the decade’s male-dominated sex-comedies, such as Porky’s (1981). However, Crowe’s script is smarter and more perceptive, perfectly capturing the awkwardness of teens and their raging hormones. Crowe once stated “it’s not a teen exploitation picture. It’s the way they live. The anguish and adolescent turmoil is important, but humour is also important”. While its contemporaries thrived on juvenile sex jokes and nudity at the expense of females, both Crowe and Heckerling undercut these tropes with a sense of authenticity. As Heckerling states in the commentary, “why is it always the female that has to be seen fully naked?” In possibly the most famous scene, we see Brad arrive home from work while Linda’s swimming in the pool. As he enters the bathroom, he closes his eyes and envisions Linda exiting the pool wearing her red bikini. As she slowly walks over to Brad, she slowly begins to remove her clothing. This sequence sets up Brad’s fantasy until it is disrupted by Linda walking in on him masturbating in the bathroom. While these occasional sexual encounters are funny, they’re never used as titillation for males. On the contrary, they’re used because they’re both embarrassing and relatable for most teenagers. As Crowe states “it was my intention to write about their entire business. From academic competition to the sexual blunders of teenage adulthood.”
Although Fast Times at Ridgemont High contains all the elements of a teenage sex-romp, it doesn’t avoid dealing with serious issues. While Crowe’s script focuses on Stacy’s journey into adulthood, it also addresses the downside of teen lust and peer pressure. Unlike Little Darlings (1980) and Valley Girl (1983), there’s an unconventional degree of honesty in the depiction of female sexuality. Similar to Heathers (1988), Crowe anticipates significantly controversial and darker tones that would usually bubble underneath the surface of John Hughes’s (Sixteen Candles) pictures. Instead of presenting sex as the pinnacle of the teenage experience, Heckerling is eager to show the act as something less desirable. Regarding her approach, she once stated “I was trying to make sex seem scary and uncomfortable.” As we see Stacy’s sexual encounters we learn they’re both less than satisfactory. The first occurs as she loses her virginity in an unromantic baseball dugout, whereas the second quickly transpires in a bathhouse. Stacy’s crushing disappointment and her subsequent ill-advised sexual encounter give Fast Times at Ridgemont High a grounded, bittersweet edge. Heckerling resists standard conventions and deals with earnest topics including underage sex, teen pregnancy, and betrayal deferentially. While her contemporaries romanticised teen lust and regurgitated cliches, Heckerling deserves immense praise for tackling the subject intently and earnestly.
Overall, Fast Times At Ridgemont High is a fantastic teen comedy that became the archetype for this genre in the ‘80s. Crowe’s script eschews the juvenile raunch of the decade for something deeper, more balanced, and moving. Within its short 90-minute runtime, Heckerling seamlessly creates characters that are real and relatable. It captures everything teenagers experience, the good, the bad, and the consequences of such actions. To quote Spicoli, Fast Times at Ridgemont High is “awesome! Totally awesome!”
USA | 1982 | 90 MINUTES | 1:85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Blu-ray Special Features
Criterion’s new release of Fast Times at Ridgemont High is sourced from a new 4K restoration. Presented in 1080p and the original aspect ratio of 1:85:1, the image has been scanned from the original 35mm camera negative. Supervised by Amy Heckerling “thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed.”
Criterion’s transfer is a remarkable upgrade when compared with Universal’s 2011 Blu-ray. The colour-grading and framing are the discernible differences between the two releases. Universal’s over-saturated colours and unbalanced contrast created numerous visual discrepancies. However, Criterion’s release provides a substantial improvement, boasting more natural flesh tones, richer colours, and healthier film grain. There’s a considerable amount of detail and nuances visible that was lost on the previous release. Minor details such as clothing fabric and Damone’s Eraserhead (1977) pin badge can be seen with clarity. While the changes may be divisive, this new transfer carries a naturalistic aesthetic. Additionally, cropping errors have also been corrected resulting in a more accurate framing. Overall this latest edition is far superior in terms of picture quality.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High includes an English DTS-HD 5.1 surround sound audio track with optional subtitles. Like most of Cameron Crowe features, the ’80s soundtrack is certainly the highlight. Opening with The Go-Go’s iconic “We Got the Beat”, the lossless track sweeps the soundstage and is incredibly immersive. The dialogue remains crisp and clean anchored primarily at the front channels. Whereas the rear channels are filled with traditional high-school effects including bustling hallways and raucous football crowds. Considering the track was recorded in 2004 by Universal Studio Sound Department it boasts great depth and solid clarity.
- New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director Amy Heckerling, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray.
- Audio commentary from 1999 featuring Heckerling and screenwriter Cameron Crowe.
- Television version of the film from the eighties, featuring deleted and alternate scenes. Presented in 1080p, Criterion provides the edited version of the main feature. Surprisingly, there’s a substantial amount of new and alternative scenes that are not included in the original theatrical version. A significant difference is that the TV version adds in a lot more character moments creating additional depth to several key relationships.
- New conversation with Heckerling and Crowe, moderated by filmmaker Olivia Wilde. Olivia Wilde (Booksmart), Amy Heckerling, and Cameron Crowe discuss the book that inspired Fast Times at Ridgemont High. During this 35-minute interview, they discuss the development of the film, the unique characters, and its lasting appeal. Wilde proves to be a fantastic host, steering the conversion into some really interesting areas.
- Reliving Our “Fast Times At Ridgemont High,” a 1999 documentary featuring interviews with cast and crew. A 40-minute archival documentary focussing on the production and lasting appeal of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Featuring interviews with the cast and crew, it provides plenty of great Easter eggs. Unfortunately, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Cameron Crowe are absent. However, Sean Penn gives a hilarious account regarding his performance.
- Audio discussion from 1982 with Heckerling at the American Film Institute. An audio interview with Amy Heckerling recorded at the American Film Institute in 1982. The director answers questions from the audience while discussing the progression of her career and the genesis of Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
- An essay by film critic Dana Stevens and, for the Blu-ray edition, a new introduction by Crowe.
Cast & Crew
director: Amy Heckerling
writer: Cameron Crowe (based on the book by Cameron Crowe)
starring: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Robert Romanus, Brian Backer, Phoebe Cates, Ray Walston, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards & Nicolas Cage.