Review: Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Many high school films seem limited in their portrayal of teenagers through their own self-censorship. To accurately portray teenagers, a film can’t be trying for a PG-13 label. To put it bluntly, you can’t leave out the sex, drugs and cursing if you want to get teenagers right.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High gets this.

I first saw Fast Times during my senior year in high school, near the end of the second term. However funny I thought the movie was at the time, I didn’t get some of its deeper meanings. I thought it was merely a raunchy 80s teen sex comedy. Perhaps the perspective of time has given me a better understanding of the film’s complexities. It has also helped me understand that high school is a goldmine for storytellers.

Fast Times is raunchy, yes, and you can easily watch it as purely an R-rated comedy with nothing profound to say, but the movie is a lot deeper than it lets on. It seems to really understand the struggles that teenagers go through: how they feign maturity, struggle to overcome their inherent awkwardness and naivety, and, perhaps most importantly in this film, temper their overwhelming sex drive.

The film also does a great job of showing how teenagers exist in a vacuum. The movie never shows any of the characters' parents. The only adults who show up are their teachers or their bosses at fast food joints. The lives of these kids are restricted to their homes, schools and the mall.

The story follows a serious of interconnected characters over the course of a year at the titular high school. They deal with their relationships, their part-time jobs, their prospects beyond high school, their friendships, their teachers, and their desire for individuality. The film is busting at the seams with talent: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Robert Romanus, Brian Backer, Phoebe Cates, Ray Walston — even Forest Whitaker, Eric Stolz and Nic Cage show up briefly. If only Sean Penn had remained doing comedy (something he excels at here) and refrained from going into self-righteous dramatic acting.

Many of these actors would become Hollywood A-listers, so like American Graffiti before it and Dazed and Confused after it, it is a high school film responsible for many big names in Hollywood. Also, like both of those films, and 2009’s Adventureland, it seems to be a perfect portrait of the time period it’s portraying. However much I like the films of John Hughes, they seem to be a pop-culture version of the 80s. Fast Times at Ridgemont High seems a lot more authentic.

Still, the film is not perfect. Its production values are a little shoddy and it sometimes glances over emotional complexities in favour of a gag, but overall, it’s a fascinating film.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High isn’t a great film, but there aren’t many films that have as good a grasp of the teenage mind as it does. It’s funny, nostalgic, and, dare I say, even a little profound.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Directed by Amy Heckerling; written by Cameron Crowe; starring Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Robert Romanus, Brian Backer, Phoebe Cates, and Ray Walston.

8 out of 10