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“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is a remarkable outlier in the teen movie genre even if tone-deaf critics like Roger Ebert panned the film upon its release in 1982. Screenwriter Cameron Crowe adapted the script from his popular novel “Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story,” about a year he spent “undercover” posing as a senior at Clairemont High School in San Diego. Crowe’s keen observations of early ‘80s teen culture provided director Amy Heckerling with a treasure trove of cultural identifiers to apply to the era’s iconographic teen archetypes.
Many of Heckerling’s exquisite casting choices proved prophetic. Revered actors such as Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, and Nicholas Cage (then Nicholas Coppola) got their starts in “Fast Times.” The movie was a forerunner to the John Hughes “brat pack” coming-of-age films that filled out the ‘80s teen-movie craze.
Episodic in structure and involving a series of equally balanced mini plots, the minutiae-filled movie is unique in the lexicon of teen films in that it is told from the perspective of its young middle class protagonists. Most of the fledgling characters are living adult lives in spite of their ill preparedness for the responsibilities of adult existence. Nearly everyone has a job and drives a car. No one talks about going to college as an interim step to contributing to society. As its title suggests, the times are moving faster than the teens can reasonably handle. Still, they put up a strong front.
Although the movie is populated primarily with cheesy Southern California pop rock from the likes of Jackson Browne, Joe Walsh, and Don Henley the visuals tell a different story. Posters of punk groups like Blondie, Elvis Costello, Buzzcocks, and the B-52s fill the walls of Robert Romanus’s Mike “Damone” character, a high-school senior living on his own. Damone pays his rent and bills by scalping concert tickets and taking bets on sporting events. He’s a sexual know-it-all happy to share his smarmy methods with his best friend “Rat” (Brian Backer), a shy nerd with a crush on Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a classmate who works across the mall from the cinema where he works.
The film’s straight-ahead approach to teen sexuality is one of its greatest strengths. Stacy is only 15, but she feels pressured to lose her virginity and master oral sex. Her sexual encounters, with a 26-year-old stud and with Damone, are less than romantic. Stacy’s subsequent pregnancy incites a crisis decision that meets with an anti-climatic resolution squarely in keeping with the reality of the times in which the story is set.
Informed by the similarly aged Heckerling’s and Crowe’s simpatico sensibilities toward their slightly younger generation, “Fast Times” cleverly employs drama and comedy in equal parts. Sean Penn’s brilliantly crafted stoner-surfer character Jeff Spicoli provides comic relief with an attitude and vocabulary that is shamelessly and unconsciously self-reflexive. Spicoli is pure superego and id. As such he gives the movie its most illustrious anti-hero, a guy who looks out at the raging surf and says to the waves, “let’s party.” Even James Dean never enjoyed such a gloriously punk moment of expression.
Rated R. 90 mins.