Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Amy Heckerling
Written by: Cameron Crowe
(based on the book FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH: A TRUE STORY by Cameron Crowe)
Starring: Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Romanus, Phoebe Cates, Brian Backer, Amanda Wyss, Ray Walston & Forest Whitaker
Many screenwriters have attempted to create authentic teenagers in cinema, but only a handful succeed at constructing adolescent movie characters that feel real. Richard Linklater accomplished this in DAZED AND CONFUSED and most of John Hughes’s filmography was built upon fleshing out believable teenage protagonists (with THE BREAKFAST CLUB being arguably his greatest movie). Before his career took a recent nosedive, Cameron Crowe turned an experimental trip back to high school into a film with FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. This film doesn’t work on a concrete plot because it mainly follows teenagers attempt to survive a year at the titular high school. However, it’s very entertaining, quite funny, and packs unexpectedly emotional punches that resonate with the viewer.
Times are moving fast at Ridgemont High, so fast that we see an entire school year encapsulated in 90 minutes. As I mentioned before, FAST TIMES doesn’t really have a singular storyline because the script follows a bunch of different characters as they progress through their teenage lives. Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold) is a senior who’s attempting to break up with his girlfriend, so he can enjoy freedom in his senior year of high school. He also suffers the daily indignities of working a fast food job. Brad’s sophomore sister Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is desperate to discover sex, as she receives advice from older friend/co-worker Linda (Phoebe Cates). Meanwhile, Mark Ratner (Brian Backer) has the hots for Stacy, much to the amusement of his slick best friend Mike Damone (Robert Romanus). Also, stoned surfer dude Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) runs afoul of strict teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston).
FAST TIMES plays fast and loose with its narrative flow, jumping from Brad to Stacy to Mark to Linda to Mike to Spicoli and then whoever it feels like returning to at any given time. The film spends more time with certain characters than others, but the overall result is a cinematic collage of teenage life. Even though this film was made in the 80s and it wears that badge with pride (lots of good tunes, aged technology, and outdated fashion sense are present in every scene), FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH still feels very contemporary in tackling problems that teenagers face on a daily basis. I’d consider this to be one of the more believable teenage-oriented movies out there (alongside THE BREAKFAST CLUB and DAZED AND CONFUSED).
There are points where FAST TIMES pumps up its sexual escapades and comedic bits for big laughs. The stand-out of these light-hearted moments are easily Spicoli’s dreams about being a surfer in his porno-decorated room and his escalating conflict against Mr. Hand. These scenes are the ones that everyone seems to remember the most about FAST TIMES, not least of which as a result of Sean Penn’s hilarious performance. There’s also the sheer awkward laughs that result from Stacy practicing blow job techniques on a carrot (in front of an audience of her peers in the cafeteria), an embarrassing scenario that’s likely happened to everybody at least once in their lives, and more.
FAST TIMES isn’t strictly a comedy though, because the film does get into heavier material as it moves along. Friendships are tested and one harsh reality is faced by a certain character. Adult viewers who have long since forgotten about the drama of their teenage years will likely be reminded about difficulties they faced on their own and relate to RIDGEMONT’s characters more than they might expect to. Films like FAST TIMES serve as solid teenage-oriented entertainment because they feel real and also elicit empathy from viewers who may not fall into the intended age demographic.
What makes FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH so special is that the film never goes past the boundaries of reality and never gets too over-the-top for its own good. This very much feels like a slice of teenage life, regardless of the decade that it was made in and continues to be watched in. The performances from every cast member are convincing, even though certain characters receive significantly more screen time than others (one of Mark’s big subplots ties itself up a bit too quickly and easily). There are laughs and surprisingly potent drama to be found in the FAST TIMES that speed by in the space of 90 minutes. If you want to see a good coming-of-age teenage comedy-drama, FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH is well worth a watch!