If you grew up at a certain time—the 1980s—and in a certain place—suburban America—then there’s a better than average chance Fast Times at Ridgemont High means an awful lot to you. Earlier this year the movie celebrated its fortieth anniversary, which feels like the right time to express my undying love for it.
In his indispensable tome Teen Movie Hell, the late great pop culture critic Mike “McBeardo” McPadden wrote of Fast Times at Ridgemont High,
Fast Times at Ridgemont High is both cinema’s great American teen sex comedy and its great American teen sex drama. This is the one teen movie toward which all previous teen movies led and from which all have subsequently proceeded. The heart, soul, brains, funny bone, gonads, and remaining vital organs of every other film contained in this book extend, in one way or dozens of others, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Even though I already knew all of that to be undeniably true, and had held these opinions about the movie for decades already, it was still thrilling to read it in print. Whether to call it a teen sex comedy or a teen sex drama doesn’t really matter because, as Mike noted, it’s both—and it’s also the best example of both.
Young Cameron Crowe adapted his eye-opening book of the same name—which he wrote after going undercover as a student in a southern California high school—into one of the best screenplays of its era. Then, young Amy Heckerling brought it to the screen in her impressively assured directorial debut. Just watch the opening scene, set to the Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat,” as the camera shadows Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) entering the Sherman Oaks Galleria and continues as he moves through the giant shopping center full of teenagers in their natural habitat. Heckerling’s greatest contributions were the respect and empathy she infused into her portrayal of the turbulent, hormonal American teenage experience. The movie is still a laugh riot, but ultimately Fast Times at Ridgemont High matters so much because it presents an uncensored, respectful look inside the lives of young people. That’s why it stuck with so many of us over the years. A much darker movie like Over the Edge (1979) had done the same a few years earlier, but with Fast Times at Ridgemont High Heckerling was able to tell an expansive story of a large group of Southern California teens across the film’s broad canvas, which covers an entire school year in the lives of these students.
My first experience with Fast Times at Ridgemont High was at some point in the mid-1980s, probably a year or two before I started junior high (which, in another sign of my rapid descent into old age, is mostly referred to as “middle school” in the United States these days). It was the cable television edit, which ran frequently on my beloved WPIX-11. Like many movies censored for TV back then—Halloween II comes to mind—this version contained several more minutes of the film that had been cut for theatrical release but were added back to replace all the sex scenes that got chopped for television. Suburban teenagers in the late eighties and early nineties shared a very similar high school experience with teenagers from the late seventies and early eighties—we were all Gen Xers, covering the age spectrum of our generation over that timespan. So, Fast Times at Ridgemont High always felt deeply personal to me, probably because in many ways its influence shaped how I viewed—and still view—my own high school experience.
I’ve watched the movie on home video so many times over the years that I’ve lost track, and lines of dialogue from it are never far from the tip of my tongue. For example:
“All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine.”
“Mister, if you don’t knock it off, I’m gonna kick 100% of your ass!”
“Stacy, he’s not a guy. He’s a little prick!”
“I woke up in such a great mood. I don’t know what the hell happened.”
“I mean, you put the vibe out to 30 million chicks, something is gonna happen.”
“What are you, people? On dope?”
In the very early 1990s when I was a teenager, I worked at a shopping mall, just like Stacy, Linda, and the Rat in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Appropriately, it was there that I bought the movie’s soundtrack at a Camelot Music Store. To this day, hearing Stevie Nicks’s “Sleeping Angel” or Jackson Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby” bring back the moments they score in the film for me with such visceral clarity that I fall a little more in love with the movie and the songs every time.
Casting director Don Phillips (Dazed and Confused, Dog Day Afternoon) struck gold with the astonishing assemblage of talent in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. At the time, most of the cast were unknown, but soon after many of them became massive stars, or at the very least consistently good-to-great working actors in Hollywood. Sean Penn. Jennifer Jason Leigh. Phoebe Cates. Judge Reinhold. Nicolas Cage. Eric Stoltz. Anthony Edwards. Forest Whittaker. Robert Romanus. Kelli Maroney. Amanda Wyss. You get the point. The performances are uniformly pitch perfect, too. The end result certainly makes it clear that Heckerling was the right director to work with this stellar group of talent. Only 27 herself when she directed the film, Heckerling and her young cast blossomed into movie professionals together.
Crowe’s script brings the humor, but it’s also filled with beautiful, touching character moments. Some are sweet, some are heavy, and Heckerling was the right director to bring all of these disparate moments to the screen. She directed her cast and interpreted Crowe’s material in a thoughtful, sensitive way, which is a huge reason the film stands head and shoulders above most other teen movies. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is jam-packed with ribald humor, plenty of nudity, and moves along at a brisk pace, but Heckerling knew just when to slow it down and film scenes like the abortion scene with sensitivity and care. In that scene, Brad Hamilton (Reinhold) winds up taking his sister Stacy (Leigh) to have an abortion—although he doesn’t know what the ride is for at first—because Damone, who got her pregnant, never shows up to driver her. Brad and Stacy talk briefly after Stacy leaves the clinic, and in that small, tender moment, Heckerling tells us more about these siblings’ relationship than most full movies ever could. That’s one of the lasting impressions that Fast Times at Ridgemont High made on me and a generation of fans: this movie cares deeply about its characters and, no matter how big or small their journeys are through the course of the film, Heckerling respects the lives of the characters that she’s documenting.
Everyone remembers the movie for the iconic Phoebe Cates pool scene—long declared “the most paused moment in VHS history”—but we also remember it for the reality-check result of that pool scene fantasy, when Linda walks in on Brad jerking off in the bathroom, adding one more ignoble defeat to Brad’s increasingly tragic senior year. We feel for Linda and Brad in that moment, plus it’s a downright hilarious scene too. This scene is one of many examples of just how well Heckerling and crew brought an unaccustomed depth to teen movies.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High will always hold an intensely nostalgic appeal for me and so many other Gen Xers who went through teenage boot camp in the 1980s and 1990s. From the way we talked to each other in high school to how our boomer teachers seemed baffled beyond belief by us, and from living at the local mall to experiencing the horrors of dating for the first time, Fast Times at Ridgemont High captures it all. It’s obviously a major cultural reference point for my generation. If you were there, at any point in the eighties or early nineties, it’s hard not to claim ownership of this magnificent movie, but the film’s appeal will outlive all of us crusty old Gen Xers. While times change and the external trappings of teenage life look a little different, we all take those early, terrifying first steps into adulthood during those years. As far as I’m concerned, no movie has ever brought that experience to the screen any better than Fast Times at Ridgemont High.