By: Erik Swift
There aren’t many films from the 1980s teen boon that stand up over time. Try watching “St. Elmo’s Fire” now without vomiting. “The Goonies” is a waste of time. Once-cool stabs at the western (“Young Guns”) and horror genres (“The Lost Boys”) are now so empty. In 2005, few sparkle with continued relevance. “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” were the heights of John Hughes’ cinematic grip on the school-aged crowd. Cameron Crowe’s charming “Say Anything” only hints at his future success. “Stand By Me” was the nostalgic period piece that resonates in any era, “Heathers” the black comedy and the brooding “River’s Edge” was an indie delight that illuminated peer pressure at its worst. Renting any combination of those six would make for ideal slumber party viewing, but excluding “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” would be a severe mistake. An honest unflinching look at teenagers, it’s often labeled a teen film but that’s bogus. It’s so much more than that.
The beauty of the film lies in its terseness. It doesn’t dwell on much before shifting to the next scenario. Tests, dares, stunts, fights, betrayals, a car crash, multiple sexual encounters and a pregnancy occur in less than 90 minutes. It is fast. Moving between part-time jobs and school pep rallies to dates, dances and football games, “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” cruises forward constantly. Crowe’s quotable first script (based on his book) presents an instantly friendly world with familiar cliques of surfers, dorks, sluts, shy guys, jocks and cheerleaders. A laid-back southern California locale adds to its hipness and a near-total lack of adult interference barely allows anyone over 18 inside.
Its lynchpin is its casting. Director Amy Heckerling’s debut gets stellar work from Jennifer Jason Leigh, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, Forest Whitaker, Phoebe Cates, Judge Reinhold and Nicholas Cage (Coppola here) in one of cinema’s biggest springboards. Heart’s Nancy Wilson (Crowe’s wife) is the blonde who famously pulls up next to Reinhold at a stoplight. Even Pamela Springsteen, Bruce’s little sister, is here. Although many others wind through it, “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” belongs to Sean Penn. The actor should have won his first Oscar for his turn as Jeff Spicioli, whose only mission in life is the acquisition of tasty waves and a cool buzz. Penn’s work ranks with John Belushi’s in “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and Jack Black’s in “Orange County” – often imitated, never duplicated. A classic burnout, Spicoli’s clashes with history instructor Mr. Hand (Ray Walston, in a role originally offered to Fred Gwynne) are among the best student-teacher wars ever.
Universal Pictures’ Awesome! Totally Awesome! special edition DVD of “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” is a blast, despite the lack of deleted scenes (all extra film was destroyed by the studio in the mid-eighties. Bummer!) Easter eggs make the best dialogue appear while The Go-Go’s, Jackson Browne, Billy Squier, Oingo Boingo, The Cars and others shine on the soundtrack’s remastered audio. The contrasting accents of Crowe, a Palm Springs native, and the Bronx-bred Heckerling make their excited commentary fun. Mistaking Crowe for one of his characters is easy with frequent wows, yeahs and “that’s so great” popping out of his mouth. Most filmmakers are never satisfied with the final product, and Heckerling is no exception. She wishes the music were cooler (more punk, less solo Eagles songs), regrets the cuts forced by the film’s initial X rating and humbly admits she doubted Cage’s abilities as a leading man until she saw him in “Valley Girl.”
That even more stars-in-waiting (Ralph Macchio, Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, Meg Tilly) were passed by shows just how bad the young Hollywood crowd wanted to be involved in this film. A 40-minute 1999 documentary “Reliving Our Fast Times At Ridgemont High” spells out the basics, yet it’s shocking to find out that the film wasn’t initially released on the east coast of the USA because the studio heads felt it would tank. They had good reason – explicit sex, foul language and drug use course through the film from start to finish. What they missed was its heart, and “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” has a lot of it. Dude, just..