Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 4)
There’s not a teen movie made after Fast Times at Ridgemont High that doesn’t owe its existence to it, and there hasn’t been one since that’s any better. Fast Times captures the spirit of high school in ways that most movies about teenagers don’t even bother to try, which is just as well, since it’s probably already been done as well as possible. Beyond that, Fast Times is far more substantive than it looks on the surface and gets better and better upon repeated viewings.
Writer Cameron Crowe went undercover in a high school for days to garner information for his book upon which the movie was based, and his depictions are scarily accurate. The movie chronicles the lives of a few students at Ridgemont High, each with different hopes and fears but all cut from the same mold of insecurity and restlessness that strikes most teenagers. Mark Ratner (Brian Backer) is a shy teddy bear, so naturally, as these things go, his close friend is the outrageous and pride-less Damone (Robert Romanus), who takes it upon himself to help Mark find a girl. Brad (Judge Reinhold) is in love with his car, less so with his girlfriend or the fast food jobs among which he rotates all year long. Stacey, Brad’s sister, (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Linda (Phoebe Cates) are preoccupied with their relationship issues, some fantasy, some so obvious that, sure enough, only they can’t see them.
Then there’s Jeff Spicoli, played in a career-breaking way by Sean Penn, a bleached-blond California surfer who “has been stoned since the third grade.” It’s impossible to count the number of subsequent movie characters that have been based on Spicoli, but he is the real deal for a number of reasons: the writing and acting are fresh and funny, and he has a foil—history teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston). Spicoli battles the buttoned-up Mr. Hand for the right to cut class, eat pizza, and even attend the end of year dance. What makes Mr. Hand so memorable is that, on one hand, he reminds everyone of a teacher he’s had, and on another, he’s quirky enough to be unique. You may have had poor grades read out loud if you were unlucky, but your class schedule probably hasn’t been ripped up in front of you.
One could not make a “teen movie” without a constant eye towards sex, but most of them nowadays treat it like a fun little game played by everyone and anyone with no real consequences. And sure, Cates offers up the most frequently rewound topless scene among teenage males in cinematic history here, but note how both times Stacey has sex, she is clearly shown as uncomfortable and regrets it afterwards. The second time leads to multiple disastrous consequences for her and Damone.
Furthermore, how many teen movies even bother to give their kids jobs? In Fast Times, they are an integral part of students’ days, mainly because they scour their workplace for datable members of the opposite sex. Aside from Brad’s misadventures, Stacey and Linda work as waitresses, Mark at a movie theater, and Damone as a concert ticket scalper, all in the same very-80s mall, making their interactions a maze of converging lines.
Above all, though, this movie is riotous. Damone is responsible for the most quotable lines, usually in the course of his relationship advice to Mark. If you don’t find his five-stage plan for winning over a girl (concluding words of wisdom: “When it comes to making out, whenever possible, put on side one of Led Zeppelin IV.”) brilliant, then I can’t help you. And that’s without mentioning Penn’s Spicoli, at whom you can laugh even though he’s not trying to be funny. Seeing him coming to class shirt unbuttoned with a bagel stuck in his pants, or smiling coyly at Mr. Hand’s look of shock at his attendance one day, is priceless.
Above all, most of the teenagers are, simply, nice guys, which is all too rare nowadays. Brad proves his worth late in the movie by helping his sister out of a delicate situation; Mark refuses to compromise his principles to get a girl; and you can root for Stacey because, despite her predilection for falling for bad boys, you know she’s a softie at heart. Even Damone comes around by the end and admits his flaws. To create such vivid, interesting people that are compassionate at heart speaks to Crowe’s talents—and foreshadows Jerry Maguire.
The point of Fast Times is not to conclude with a conventional climax. It runs through the school year, but it understands that the character’s lives don’t end there. Some of the relationships may achieve closure, but the underlying tone suggests that they’re just as likely to fluctuate in the future as they did throughout the previous year. My opinion of the movie’s quality won’t suffer the same fate.