Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Director: Amy Heckerling
Screenplay: Cameron Crowe (based on his book)
Stars: Jennifer Jason Leigh (Stacy Hamilton), Judge Reinhold (Brad Hamilton), Robert Romanus (Mike Damone), Brian Backer (Mark "Rat" Ratner), Phoebe Cates (Linda Barrett), Sean Penn (Jeff Spicoli), Ray Walston (Mr. Hand), Forrest Whitaker (Charles Jefferson)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1982
Country: U.S.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Fast Times at Ridgemont High

In the late 1970s, a 22-year old journalist named Cameron Crowe, who had been writing for major music publications like Rolling Stone and Creem since he was 16, did a very interesting thing. Curious about what life was like in a contemporary American high school (he had graduated high school early at age 15 in 1972), he decided to go undercover and pretend to be a teenager again, essentially living the senior year in high school he had never had. He spent an entire year infiltrating Clairemont High School in San Diego, making friends with a large and varied group of kids and writing down everything he could. When the year was up, he identified himself and his purpose to his newfound friends, and many of them allowed him to conduct further interviews to flesh out the details. The result was a slim, but insightful and entertaining book called Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

So, of course the book was optioned for a film before it even hit stores, and a year later, first-time director Amy Heckerling, a recent graduate of the American Film Institute, had the movie in theaters—although, it should be noted, the studio was so convinced that it would be a bomb that they slashed the number of the theaters in which it was set to open, fundamentally erasing it from the East Coast. Fast Times, of course, turned out to be a major hit, especially once it landed on home video and cable television, where it played in endless rotation and became a cult item for teenagers because it was a movie told about them from their point of view and without condescending to their experience. The truthfulness of Crowe’s journalistic book—which is poignant, painful, and also deeply funny—is fundamentally woven into the film’s fabric, giving it a sense of frank authenticity that many so-called “teen exploitation” movies of its era studiously lacked (and never really cared to have anyway).

However, as good as much of the film is, there is something fundamentally unwieldy and imbalanced about Fast Times at Ridgemont High. While few things have been changed in the transition from paper to screen (Crowe penned the screenplay himself), the movie doesn’t quite rise to what it could have been because it doesn’t emphasize the fact that these are real people and real events. Its frank depiction of awkward, fumbling adolescent sexuality and embarrassment was already a staple of the teen genre, so if you didn’t know it was based on real people and events, you might assume it to be simply opportunistic (film critic Roger Ebert sure did in his now notorious one-star take-down). Much of the film feels too much like “a movie,” and its raw sociological insights and notes of grace risk being drowned out by the Top 40 soundtrack and all the ready-made, repeatable riffs of dialogue (not surprisingly, Fast Times is a great movie to quote).

There is much to admire in the film—for one, its amazing cast of then largely unknown actors, virtually all of whom went on to major Hollywood careers and several of whom have won Oscars (Sean Penn, Forrest Whitaker) or been nominated (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Although his role is really nothing more than a glamorized cameo, Penn was immediately launched into the realm of the bona-fide movie star with his uproarious turn as the imminently likable surfer Jeff Spicoli, who is infamous for having been stoned since the third grade. With his red-rimmed eyes and blissed-out Southern California drawl, Penn has a huge presence in the film, and every whacked line, non-sequitur, and random observation he utters resonates with the sheer hilarity of his utter conviction of character. He is who he is.

But, the heart of the film lies in a love triangle—or actually, it’s more of a square ... sort of. (You know how these high school things are.) Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a naive freshman who wants desperately to be sexually experienced simply because everyone else is. At the behest of her older, more outgoing friend, Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates), she throws her virginity away on an older stereo salesman in a particularly uncomfortable scene that takes place in a baseball dugout. The whole time Stacy stares up at the ceiling, and you can tell that she isn’t enjoying what she is doing, nor is she proud of it. Heckerling refuses to soften the scene or give it a gloss of Hollywood sheen or exploitative amusement; it is awkward and even a bit sad.

Meanwhile, Brian Ratner, a.k.a. The Rat (Brian Backer), a shy and clumsy honor roll student with a terribly nice disposition, has his eye on Stacy. He is the kind of guy who is too decent for his own good, not to mention seriously lacking in self-confidence. His more outgoing, accomplished friend is Mike Damone (Robert Romanus), one of those guys who talks much more than he should about things he doesn’t know much about (interestingly, he and Linda are essentially flip sides of the same character, as the film suggests that Linda is not nearly as experienced or knowledgeable as she makes herself out to be, a curious ambiguity that becomes more and more obvious with each viewing). Mike exudes confidence and a slightly smug superiority, but it is mostly just an act. However, to a guy like Ratner, Mike “knows his stuff,” therefore he is someone to take seriously. The upshot of the whole situation is that Stacy and Ratner are meant to be together, but things get unnecessarily confused because they listen to their not-as-informed-as-they-present-themselves-as friends too much.

There are several other characters interspersed throughout the film, including Stacy’s older brother, Brad (Judge Reinhold), who takes particular pride in his job at the local burger joint, and Charles Jefferson (Forest Whitaker), probably the only black student at Ridgemont who also happens to be the most sought-after football recruit in all of California. And then there’s Mr. Hand, the despotic high school teacher everybody had and everybody loves to hate. Brought to life with wonderful, clenched-jaw resilience by Ray Walston, Mr. Hand comes alive because he honestly doesn’t understand why none of the kids are interested in his history class. “What, are you all on dope?” he asks, thinking the question is rhetorical. Mr. Hand is determined to make decent citizens out of his class of slackers, and that is what makes him so delightfully intolerable.

All the elements of a sincere exploration of the mess of adolescence are here, but the film is simply too unwieldy. It never manages a consistent tone, and it wavers between harsh realism and bawdy vulgarity. Individual scenes work marvelously, but it doesn’t quite come together like it should (or like we want it to). Fast Times deals with a whole gamut of controversial subjects, including masturbation, drug use, adolescent sex, and even abortion, yet it goes about them with completely different approaches. The masturbation and drug use are used as embarrassing gags, while the sex scenes and the attendant abortion subplot are intentionally stifling and uncomfortable in their realism. It is not that either of these approaches is inherently bad; rather, they don’t coexist well in the same movie. It takes a real understanding of tone and a nimble ability to shift gears, and Fast Times all too often clunks from one tone to the next.

Still, Fast Times at Ridgemont High remains a staple of the raunchy Hollywood teen genre, even as it seeks and often succeeds in transcending it. It is very much a product of the early Reagan years, with its soundtrack loaded with MTV-ready hits by the likes of The Go-Go’s, The Cars, Billy Squire, and Oingo Boingo; a keen sense of the centrality of shopping malls to adolescent suburban culture (something absent from Crowe’s book that Heckerling added); and a self-conscious recognition of outlandish ’80s fashion (there is a whole conversation about three different girls trying to emulate the Pat Benatar look and an early shot that appears to be just a crass tracking of female derrieres is actually a sly comment on the ubiquity of Jordache jeans). However, unlike most films of its type, Fast Times transcends some of its shortcomings because it sees its characters as real people because they were real people, something that most viewers were unaware of at the time of its release. The teenagers in the audience sensed it, though, even if they didn’t know it explicitly. They discerned, on some level, that they were watching themselves and their friends on the big screen—their experience, sometimes painfully honest, sometimes comically exaggerated—writ large.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High Director-Approved Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary from 1999 by director Amy Heckerling and screenwriter Cameron Crowe
  • Television version of the film, featuring deleted and alternate scenes
  • New conversation with Heckerling and Crowe, moderated by filmmaker Olivia Wilde
  • “Reliving Our Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” 1999 documentary
  • Audio discussion from 1982 with Heckerling at the American Film Institute
  • Essay by film critic Dana Stevens and, for the Blu-ray edition, a new introduction by Crowe
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMay 11, 2021

    Despite being prominently branded as a “director-approved” release, there has been no end of controversy over Criterion’s new Blu-ray of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which, truth be told, looks significantly different than the 2011 Universal Blu-ray. According to the liner notes, Criterion’s presentation was created in 16-bit 4K from the original 35mm camera negative under the supervision of director Amy Heckerling and digitally restored. Much of the complaining has to do with the film’s color temperature, which runs much, much cooler than previous editions, resulting in skin tones that are noticeably subdued and even a bit grayish at times. This doesn’t mean that some colors don’t pop. Rather, the reds are more prominent and intense than ever, from Linda’s infamous bikini and fingernails, to Brad’s burger uniform, to Charles Jefferson’s track suit. The image is clean and lacking in noticeable damage or wear, but it is decidedly softer and grainer than previous editions, which is true to the era. The framing is also tighter than the 2011 Blu-ray, although the technical folks at Criterion have noted that they followed the SMPTE framing chart for 35mm and the 1.85 aspect ratio. This may simply be a case where people have gotten used to the film looking a certain way and are now unnerved to see it looking different, even if the new presentation is closer and more accurate to the original theatrical presentation (which I can only assume it is). The soundtrack is presented in the same 5.1-channel mix created by Universal for the 2004 DVD edition using the original 35mm DME magnetic tracks and the half-inch magnetic music masters. Presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio, it sounds good, with plenty of heft and spaciousness in the various needle drops, although there is little directionality in most of the sound effects and dialogue. It is too bad, though, that original two-channel soundtrack couldn’t also be included. It should also be noted that this version of Fast Times is not exactly the same as the original theatrical version, as Heckerling opted to return to the original framing in a shot of the Mike-Stacy pool house sex scene to show a fleeting bit of full-frontal male nudity that had to be removed to get an R rating back in 1982.

    Extras are plentiful, although many of them have appeared on previous editions. From the original 1999 DVD we get an entertaining and informative audio commentary by Heckerling and Crowe, who were recorded together and clearly had a great time revisiting the film, its production, the various fights involved in getting it made (which, according to Heckerling, began with the use of The Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat” over the opening credits instead of the studio desired “Raised on the Radio” by the now-forgotten band The Ravyns). Also from that disc we get “Reliving Our Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” a 38-minute retrospective documentary that includes then-new interviews with Heckerling, producer Art Linson, casting director Don Phillips, and actors Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold, Brian Backer, Robert Romanus, Eric Stoltz, Scott Thomson, and Ray Walston (it is odd that none of the female actors were interviewed). New to Criterion’s disc is a 34-minute discussion with Heckerling and Crowe that is moderated by actor/director Olivia Wilde, who clearly loves the film and used it for inspiration for her directorial debut Booksmart (2019). It is enjoyable to see them all talking about the film, although there isn’t too much that is new here (although I did enjoy hearing Crowe drescribe how he dug around in dumpsters behind various high schools on the last day of school to retrieve all manner of insightful detritus thrown away by the graduating seniors). From the archives we also get a 45-minute audio discussion from 1982 with Heckerling at her alma mater, the American Film Institute. Finally, the disc includes the entire broadcast television version of the film, which is substantially different from the theatrical cut due to the inclusion of numerous scenes that were left out (including a frank depiction of Stacy actually getting the abortion, which I recall having seen on either cable television or VHS back in the day). Many of these scenes are dialogue-driven and help to flesh out the characters and their motivations, which makes it a shame that they had to be cut from the slightly shorter theatrical version (of course, all the sex scenes are completely cut out and much of the dialogue is redubbed, my favorite being Spicoli’s calling Mr. Hand a “nerd” instead of a “dick”). The insert booklet includes a new introduction by Crowe and a deeply personal essay by film critic Dana Stevens.

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    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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