There’s a telling moment, roughly halfway through the funny and frank Fast Times at Ridgemont High, where the sexually curious Stacy Hamilton and skittish wallflower Mark “Rat” Ratner share a meal at a tacky, dimly-lit German restaurant. As they struggle through small talk and knockwurst, the camera pans back to reveal that they’re barely tall enough to fit into their comically oversized leather chairs. What seems like a subtle and unnecessary sight gag gradually reveals itself as an astute bit of symbolism. These teens are stuck in a purgatory between childhood and adulthood, too old to depend on their parents, but too young to depend on themselves. Fast Times shows them struggle to see over the edge of the table from those big chairs and we can’t help but empathize and laugh along.
Drawn like moths to a flame, these young people of Ridgemont congregate at the local mall, either taking up summer jobs or loitering in the arcade. The aforementioned Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) shuffles through her shifts as a waitress at an Italian cafeteria, dreaming about going steady with college guys and deliberating over the sexual prowess of male classmates with her experienced (but naive) best friend, Linda (Phoebe Cates).
Admiring Stacy from afar, theater usher “Rat” Ratner (Brian Backer) is so incapable of striking up a conversation that he’s willing to take advice from local ticket scalper and self-proclaimed casanova, Mike Damone (Robert Romanus). When he finally musters the courage to ask her on a date (with Damone’s copy of Zeppelin IV firmly in hand), he forgets his wallet at home, has nary an interesting thing to say and bolts seconds into an already uncomfortable sexual dalliance. Unfortunately for Rat, his cold feet eventually drive Stacy into the arms of the half-interested Damone, culminating in a heartbreaking final act that confronts the worst case scenario of teen sex head on.
A few years older and hardly any wiser, Stacy’s brother, Brad (Judge Reinhold), polishes his beloved car in his spare time and endlessly flips burgers to make the monthly payments. As his Senior Year approaches, he practices a break-up speech planned for his “clingy” girlfriend, who, ironically, wants to jump ship just as bad as he does. Single and newly unemployed, Brad’s left to tread water between the pressures of minimum wage work and an embarrassing poolside slip-up in front of the comely Linda (cue iconic, slow-motion fantasy sequence). Despite these setbacks, Brad manages to find self-sufficiency and extends support to his younger sister when their parents aren’t able to provide it.
Offering comic relief is the oft-shirtless and perpetually stoned Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn), a poster child for the Cali-surfing lifestyle who warbles in a spacey Valley accent and regularly runs afoul of authority, particularly ornery History professor, Mr. Hand (Ray Walston). The exchanges between these polar opposites are the film’s finest moments, resembling some kind of microcosmic cold war between sarcasm and antagonism.
Another key to the film’s success is author Cameron Crowe’s insight into the minutiae of teen culture. Details like the scent of syllabi on the first day of class or the number of students donning the “Pat Benatar Look” are the tiny idiosyncrasies that shape a relatively straightforward script into something profound. His influence even trickles into the soundtrack, which features quintessential cuts from Tom Petty, The Cars and Jackson Browne, and carries the right tone for the age group and time period.
Behind the camera, Amy Heckerling does an admirable job of sapping all eroticism from the intimate scenes, leaving behind only the discomfort and inadequacy most people attribute to early sexual experiences. She also understands the exclusive world teens live in, staging scenes in the lunch rooms, bedrooms and vehicles that occupy the slivers of time between class and moments of parental supervision. We wisely never see the parents of the principal cast, allowing each character to adjust to adult roles on their own. It’s not surprising that Heckerling would have similar success with another era of teens 13-years-later (1995’s Clueless).
Though the change in tone leading up to the final moments can be jarring, repeat viewings reveal a shift that consciously resembles the literal and figurative act of “growing up.” This honesty and willingness to show a loss of innocence boosts Fast Times at Ridgemont High above its sex-crazed, hard-partying brethren, creating an authentic portrait of 80’s teens who were still able to have fun despite the creeping weight of adult responsibility.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Universal Pictures, 1982)
Directed by Amy Heckerling
Written by Cameron Crowe
Photographed by Matthew F. Leonetti