Dir. Amy Heckerling, US, 1982, 90 mins
Cast: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates,
Brian Backer, Robert Romanus, Ray Walston, Forest Whittaker
Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High could be given the title of the most controversial teen movie of all time. This is the film that blazed the trail for American Pie (1999) touching on issues that had never been confronted before in a teen movie at the time of its release.
The narrative follows the lives of half a dozen teenagers throughout their last year of high school. Teen angst ensues as the girls concern themselves with attracting boys and vice versa. Stacey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) sets out to explore her sexuality with a couple of quick and unsatisfying experiences with members of the opposite sex. The pressure on her to partake in adult activities is the crux of her role in the film as we watch her stumble confusingly into one sexual encounter after another. Brad (Judge Reinhold) is a popular member of the school football team with a beautiful girlfriend and a ‘great job’ at the All American Burger Bar as a supervisor. Throughout the course of the school year he loses his girlfriend and his job and has to face up to life after school and the changes and responsibilities that come with it. Jeff Spicoli (hilariously played by Sean Penn) is the school stoner, constantly in a drug fuelled haze and concerned only with surfing and having a great time. His conflict with his history teacher, Mr. Hand (Ray Walston), threatens to prevent his graduation and force him to repeat a year. Other characters face similar problems or changes in their lives that are resolved (or not) in some way by the end of the film.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High is an atypical teen movie through and through. The focus of the narrative is set firmly on the often troubled but entertaining lives of children coming to terms with encroaching adulthood. At the time of its release, it caused somewhat of a stir due to its controversial subject matter, in particular, Stacey’s abortion. When 15-year-old Stacey falls pregnant to Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) after a very brief encounter in a changing room, she finds out that she is pregnant and is forced to have a secret abortion. The rather liberal attitude towards sex amongst the teenagers (who are supposed to be aged between 15 and 18 in the film) give an impression of an out of control American youth, freely having sex with multiple partners, taking copious amounts of drugs, masturbating in bathrooms and regarding the process of abortion as the norm, an impression that shocked middle America (though that’s not exactly difficult to do). Other previous teen films had never portrayed the American teenager as having such loose morals and Fast Times at Ridgemont High had the censors so worried, that it received the dreaded R rating when it was first released in the U.S. The ‘apple pie’ scene and the explicit nudity and sexual references in American Pie were made possible through the trail blazing and controversially shocking (at the time) content of this film.
Fast Times in Ridgemont High is extremely funny. Sean Penn gives the star performance of the film as the stoner Jeff Spicoli, stealing every scene he’s in. Judge Reinhold is equally entertaining as the frantic Brad. His ever-increasing level of stress throughout the film provides some of the more memorable moments (see his customer service skills). The common issues that provide the motivation in almost all teen films (sex, falling in love, the transition from child to adult, growing facial hair!) are all dealt with using humour and a sense of honesty. No punches are pulled, especially when it comes to questions surrounding sex and virginity, and its this bluntness and refusal to skirt around the issues that brought the undue attention. For all the criticism the film received from the moral crusaders (who seem to get flustered at the mere glimpse of a nipple), the conclusion to the film conveys the message that sex shouldn’t be rushed when your young and a sense of love and romance should always come first. As with all films that draw negative attention to themselves, through scenes such as these, the narrative ends, more often than not, with the sense that a lesson has been learned and the residue of a positive message is left to the viewer rather than the idea that all hope is lost.
This film is without doubt one of the greatest teen movies your ever likely to watch. The appearance of an astonishing number of future stars (Nicholas Cage, Anthony ‘Goose/ER’ Edwards, Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh etc), many of who were making their debut film performances, is alone worth watching it for (Sean Penn’s hair!). The now infamous scene of Phoebe Cates emerging semi-naked from a pool struck a chord with many of the male members of the films audience and now has cult notoriety. It has a great soundtrack and a tight script (written by Cameron Crowe), capturing the youth of 1980’s America more truthfully than any of its contemporaries managed to do.