Throwback Thursday: Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a High School Time Capsule

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

Concluding our month of looking back at high school films, this review revisits one of the ’80s-ist movies of the ’80s: 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. A quick peek into a whole school year as experienced by a variety of students, the United States Library of Congress even added it to its National Film Registry as a significant film. This inclusion is well deserved, but don’t let the haughty induction completely mislead you: boiled down, this is still a teen sex comedy but with some hysterical, and truthful moments.

Movie poster of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"

Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s theatrical poster bills it as nothing more than a sex comedy.

Revolving around a stellar ensemble cast, the film follows the travails of these characters as they—in varying degrees—succumb to the realities of growing up. On one end of the spectrum, you have Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold) who is intent on paying off his car, breaking up with his girlfriend (so he can date other girls), and riding high at his job at All-American Burger before he hits the high life of college. Things don’t quite work out for Brad: he ends up getting fired, running through a series of demeaning part-time jobs, and getting caught in the act of self-pleasure by the girl about whom he’s fantasizing. (This scene with Phoebe Cates in a red bikini launched a thousand or more teens into puberty).

Phoebe Cates in a red bikini

The definition of awkward.

Linda (Cates) is best friends with Brad’s sister Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She has the distinct honor of being one of few girls in an 80s film who owns her sexuality and doesn’t care what guys think. Linda does everything in her power to instill in Stacy the idea that she, too, has agency relative to boys. This was pretty radical for the 80s (and, let’s face it, now). There’s also a softer side to Linda: she’s putting on a front of being more knowledgeable than she is. She’s a great character that everyone can relate to.

The film’s emotional center revolves around Stacy and her quest to find her own path in love and relationships. Inundated by society’s messages that sex is the be-all and end-all, she ventures down a highly sexual path while also pausing to date Mark Ratner (Brian Backer). Mike is the opposite of Stacy, trying to find the romantic ideal and not quite succeeding. By the end of the film, they’ve found a happy medium that works for them.

Jennifer Jason Leigh's as Stacy at her locker.

Stacy is one step away from an after-school special. Luckily, she’s in capable hands.

The comedic character is elevated to stoner surfer brilliance by Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli. He’s a slacker who only cares about the next party, surfing, and just enjoying life. His nemesis is history teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston), a no-nonsense, follow-the-rules dictator. This being the 80s, they could potentially find middle ground, but, in reality, Hand remains convinced that all his students are high and good for nothing.

Sean Penn getting bawled out by his teacher for ordering a pizza.

Spicoli and Mr. Hand probably realizing that we all would like pizza in class.

Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) ties the story threads together. A student with a side job as a ticket scalper, he thinks ironic detachment is the way to impress the ladies. One of the reasons the film works is because of a subplot involving Damone and Stacy. A little uncomfortable to watch, it shows that they want to be adults but aren’t quite ready for the realities of the adult world.

Robert Romanus in Fast Times at Ridgemont High

“Rat” getting advice from Damone. This won’t end well.

This is an ensemble film that gave a start to a lot of actors, including Forest Whitaker, Vincent Schiavelli, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, and even Nic Cage. Some are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments, but a couple actors have meatier roles. It’s the ’80s version of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused.

Co-director Cameron Crowe, a young prodigy, became a freelance writer for Rolling Stone at age 15 (Almost Famous is a fictionalized version of his life). Since he skipped a good chunk of his high school years, at age 22, he went undercover as a student. That experience shaped his novel, which he was then hired to adapt into a screenplay. Ridgemont’s resulting natural and believable dialogue goes hand in hand with Amy Heckerling debut co-direction. (You might know her from her other brilliant teen film, Clueless). It’s her little touches that make this film so brilliant: Stacy loses her virginity in a dugout, staring at the graffiti on the ceiling.  Damone tries to come up with cash to pay for something and realizes he’s out of his depth. These moments etch the film in the minds of a whole generation and make the film still work today.

Being a teen is rough: you’re either rushing to be older or running away from those commitments. You’re not content being where you are. Only later do you look back and realize—even with all the highs and lows—that you’d like to go back and try again.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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