Directed By: Amy Heckerling
Starring: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold
Tag line: "Fast Cars, Fast Girls, Fast Carrots...Fast Carrots?"
Trivia: Jennifer Jason Leigh's real life father, Vic Morrow, died in a helicopter accident on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie about 3 weeks before the US release of this film
During the opening credits sequence for Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which features a few scenes set inside Ridgemont Mall, I immediately flashed back to my own teenage years, when my friends and I would spend our Friday nights hanging out at the local shopping mall, which looked like the one in this film (the Sherman Oaks Galleria stood in for the fictional Ridgemont). I’m talking exactly like it, from the arcade, food court, and movie theater right down to the staircases and glass elevator. It was the first of several memories that came rushing back as I sat watching Fast Times at Ridgemont High, chief among them being how much I love this film.
15-year-old Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a sophomore at Ridgemont High, is desperate to find a boyfriend. Following the advice of her best friend Linda (Phoebe Cates), Stacy dates several guys, including classmate Mark Ratner (Brian Backer), who has a crush on her; and Mark’s pal, Mike Damone (Richard Romanus), a con man who has a way with the ladies. Stacy’s older brother Brad (Judge Reinhold), in his senior year at Ridgemont, decides to break it off with his longtime girlfriend Lisa (Amanda Wyss) so that he can ‘play the field’, but is fired from his job before he can do so. As Stacy, Brad, and the others try to deal with the problems that plague most kids their age, classmate Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) is having fun surfing waves, smoking dope with his buddies (Eric Stoltz and Anthony Edwards), and tormenting his history teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) every chance he gets.
Written by Cameron Crowe, whose experiences posing as a high school student formed the basis of the novel that shares its name with this film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High captured teen life in the ‘80s much better than some critics gave it credit for at the time. Roger Ebert was especially harsh in his 1-star write-up, calling Fast Times “a scuz-pit of a movie” in which “the humor comes from raunchy situations and dialogue”. Sure, the movie is raunchy; along with a couple of sex scenes and a very memorable dream sequence, there’s a sequence involving carrots that fueled the imagination of an entire generation of young men. But the movie also offers some genuine insight into the teenage experience, including fear of responsibility (despite his cool demeanor, Mike Damone proves he’s just as scared as everyone else when the chips are down, leaving Stacy to face a difficult situation on her own), awkward first dates (Mark’s and Stacy’s night on the town ends rather abruptly), and, most traumatic of all, high school biology class, the curriculum for which was clearly devised by a sadist (having attended Catholic school, I never went on a class trip to the hospital, but we did dissect a few of nature’s more disgusting creatures). So while the humor in Fast Times at Ridgemont High does occasionally aim low, it also reaches higher than many other teen comedies of this era.
Along with Crowe’s script, Fast Times has an outstanding young cast, many of whom would go on to bigger and better things. Jennifer Jason Leigh convincingly portrays Stacy as a confused young woman so eager to lose her virginity that she doesn’t stop to consider the consequences, and the stunning Phoebe Cates is exceptional as the worldly best friend who, it turns out, doesn’t have all the answers. In addition to these two, the movie features Judge Reinhold as Stacy’s older brother Brad, who has trouble holding onto a job; and Forest Whitaker as football star Charles Jefferson, an often-angry guy who singlehandedly wins a big game for the home team. Then there’s Sean Penn as the oft-stoned Jeff Spicoli, a surfer whose sole purpose in life is to have a good time. Despite its ensemble cast, some of whom get considerably more screen time, Penn’s Spicoli is the character that immediately pops to mind when you think of this film (his various run-ins with Ray Walston’s Mr. Hand are arguably the movie’s most hilarious scenes).
While the years may have altered my perspective a bit (back in the day, I agreed with Spicoli when he called Mr, Hand a “dick”. Now, I see the poor guy was more patient than I ever gave him credit for), they haven’t changed how much I enjoy Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Every time I watch this movie, I’m a teenager again, and that’s a feeling I wouldn’t trade for the world.