|It seems every generation has its teen movie that defines the era for those who were there, and provides insight for those who were not as to what it had been like to live through it. But 1973's American Graffiti and 1978's Grease were ostensibly about the nineteen-sixties and fifties respectively, and 1993's Dazed and Confused was about the seventies, meaning many of the hits and cults were about the teenage years of the filmmakers, more than they were about the teenage years of the audience who were invited to come and see them. Yet every so often, you had a phenomenon that was contemporary to the audience, and that seems to sum things up.
Beach Party in 1963, or Superbad in 2007 count in that category, and Lady Bird in 2017 just about does for being relatively recent to the younger audience's memories, but if there was one era that embraced the teen flick like no other it was the eighties, and almost at the beginning of that decade arrived a comedy drama that encapsulated American high school like no other. Probably because it spends half its time with the teen characters in the local mall. This was Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a controversial film in its day that could have been rude and crude like Animal House or Porky's, but preferred to be rude and crude and insightful instead.
That was down to two talents behind the scenes: writer Cameron Crowe and director Amy Heckerling. Crowe had been a journalist with Rolling Stone, one of the youngest they had ever employed, and he had decided to turn to more personal articles when covering the rock stars he was accustomed to. This led him to an adventure, where as he was still of tender years he was able to pose as a high schooler and infiltrate a typical Californian school to serve up an account of what the teens were really like, what they discussed and what their activities were. Not something a journalist would be able to get away with all this time later, it would have to be said.
Nowadays you could simply ask the students to write their own stories and experiences out, or follow a bunch of them on social media where they spill their guts regularly and the teen life is not so much of a secret anymore, except possibly to the less curious parents. But in 1982, this kind of investigation was not so easily accessible, and that rendered this film all the more of an object of fascination, not merely in America where it proved a hit, but abroad as this decade was the one where the eyes of the world's youth were turning to the United States to work out where the latest trends were coming from and what should be followed and emulated. The movies were a guide.
When Fast Times at Ridgemont High is looked back on these days, it is not only as a cultural artefact, so redolent of eighties cultural excess it depicted, it is because it kick-started a lot of successful acting careers too. Future Oscar-winner Sean Penn was the lead comedy character as Spicoli, who would prefer to be either stoned or surfing rather than in the history class of Mr Hand, played by former sixties sitcom star Ray Walston in a career rebooting role. He proves to be Spicoli's nemesis as they play a game of oneupmanship, from ripping up timetables to ordering pizza to be delivered at the stoner's desk, and the manner in which this is resolved is very pleasing in that it allows them to call it a very respectable draw and leave it at that.
But it was not only Penn who captured the limelight, as the frank conversations between Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Jason Leigh were a talking point as well. Cates attempts to coach Leigh in matters sexual, despite us suspecting she doesn't know anything more than she has read in lifestyle magazines, leaving Leigh to actually act these things out, first losing her virginity behind the football field to a sleazy older guy, and then needing an abortion when a brief encounter with the best friend (Robert Romanus) of the guy who is really nursing a crush on her (Brian Backer) goes all the way. Heckerling made sure this was the least romantic pairing possible, all to emphasise that while these kids talk about sex, they're not ready for it. The film presents all this variety of formative experience with the importance it feels to its characters, and its younger audience.
Also cropping up in smaller roles were Forest Whitaker as a football star, Eric Stoltz and Anthony Edwards as two of Penn's stoner buddies, eighties favourite Kelli Maroney, future Phil Spector murder victim Lana Clarkson, and a blink and you'll miss him role for Nicolas Cage in his screen debut, among others, though Judge Reinhold probably looked set for more substantial stardom as Leigh's brother who ends up having a terrible final year of school. It was he who we had to thank for the film's most famous scene, as he is caught masturbating in the bathroom by the pool by the mortified Cates, though not before we had been privy to his precise fantasy - many was a VHS tape ruined by excessive pausing of that topless scene. But while there were laughs here, it was not cruel, there was sympathy for every teen we saw, even the least appealing, and they all got to make an impression thanks to Heckerling's generosity and willingness to treat the film as a showcase for its young cast. Deceptively casual in its approach to pressing issues, Fast Times at Ridgemont High passed into teen movie legend, but is as accessible as ever.
[The Criterion Collection release this on Blu-ray with the following features:
New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director Amy Heckerling, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
Audio commentary from 1999 featuring Heckerling and screenwriter Cameron Crowe
Television version of the film from the eighties, featuring deleted and alternate scenes
New conversation with Heckerling and Crowe, moderated by filmmaker Olivia Wilde
Reliving Our "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," a 1999 documentary featuring interviews with cast and crew
Audio discussion from 1982 with Heckerling at the American Film Institute
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: An essay by film critic Dana Stevens and, for the Blu-ray edition, a new introduction by Crowe.]