Director: Amy Heckerling
Screenplay: Cameron Crowe (based on his novel)
Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Brian Backer, Robert Romanus
BBFC Certification: 15
Watch any teen comedy from the last forty years or so and I guarantee it will owe a debt to Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Amy Heckerling’s 1982 cult classic may not have been the first teen comedy when it was released (George Lucas’ American Graffiti and John Landis’ Animal House paved the way and it shares 1982 with the criminally little seen The Last American Virgin) but it nevertheless became the film that managed to enshrine the template and tone that all others would follow. Its DNA can be found in everything from The Breakfast Club and Dazed and Confused, to American Pie, to 2019’s Booksmart. No wonder then that Criterion have decided to venerate Fast Times at Ridgemont High by adding it to their Blu Ray collection this May. Yet a question does remain…there is no doubt that Fast Times at Ridgemont High is incredibly influential, but after almost forty years, is it still actually any good?
For being such a touchstone in the genre, it may come as a surprise that Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s plot actually goes against the grain in the sense that…well, in the sense that there isn’t really much of one. There is no main character and the film doesn’t spend the majority of its running time obsessively building up to a climatic moment (such as the end of the year Prom or the moment when the guy finally gets the girl). Instead, the film takes a far more objective and documentary like approach to its story and presents, over the course of a school year, a series of vignettes centred around a few key characters.
Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is just beginning high school and uses the advice of her more worldly best friend Linda (Phoebe Cates) to help her loose her virginity. Shy and awkward Mark (Brian Backer) has a crush on Stacy and uses the advice of his best friend Mike (Robert Romanus) on how to ask her out. Meanwhile, Stacy’s brother and high school senior Brad (Judge Reinhold) struggles to keep his job at a burger bar while stoner Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) enters a war of attrition with his authoritarian history teacher, Mr. Hand (Ray Walston). To say too much more would possibly ruin the various surprises that occur along the way.
Made just on the cusp before a more conservative, Ronald Reagan led era began to dominate American society in the early 80s, what is most striking today about Fast Times at Ridgemont High is the film’s frankness and honesty. This isn’t the kind of teen film that takes place in a high school that might feel relatable but is still keenly situated within the realms of cinematic fantasy, such as American Pie or Ten Things I Hate About You. Instead, Fast Times anticipates the darker, more serious tone that would bubble underneath the surface of many a John Hughes film and puts its front and centre. In just over ninety minutes, the film deals incredibly openly with sex, nudity, friendship, drugs and abortion (to name just a few!) in a manner that puts many more modern films to shame.
Take sex, for example. Usually presented as the pinnacle of the teenage experience in the dozens of films that came in its wake, sex in Fast Times at Ridgemont High is depicted with an unconventional degree of honesty. Director Amy Heckerling was keen to show sex as something scary and uncomfortable (which, for many a teenager, it undoubtedly is), where the protagonists don’t really have any idea what they are doing. This alone would be enough to make the film stand out from its peers, but combined with the now fairly infamous use of nudity used throughout only serves to magnify the film’s sense of authenticity. In fact, this new Criterion edition goes so far as to add additional nudity into one of the film’s most memorable and awkward scenes. Yet, bucking standard convention, it is male nudity that has been re-included in this new edition and makes for a refreshing change; as Heckerling points out in one of the extras on the disc, why is it always the female who has to be seen fully naked?
This sense of credibility works so well because neither Heckerling nor Cameron Crowe (adapting his own novel here before going on to direct his own teen classic Say Anything a few years later) ever judge their characters or their decisions. Whether they are smoking prodigious amounts of weed or having secret abortions, the characters are presented in a grounded and observational manner that allows the audience make up their own minds about them.
The performances from the young cast (including film debuts from Forest Whitaker and a seventeen year old Nicolas Cage!) go a long way in helping to make the film feel like a more tangible experience, with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Brian Backer especially coming across as incredibly sweet and fragile. Yet if there is one performance that the film is remembered for, it is Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli. Seemingly setting the template for all Stoner performances going forward, Sean Penn lights up the screen whenever he appears and his afterglow could thereafter be found in similar comedies such as Bill and Ted and Wayne’s World, to dramas and action films – just watch Brad Pitt’s useless Floyd in True Romance. The rest of the cast are strong enough to ensure that he doesn’t steal the film, but there is no doubt that Sean Penn’s turn here is a star making one. If you have only seen the actor playing more serious roles, Fast Times at Ridgemont High might come as revelation.
However, no matter how good the performances, by taking a more objective approach to its characters and plotting, its easier to admire the film for what it does than for what it makes you feel. Being a teenager is to experience a myriad of emotions from despair all the way to euphoria. Fast Times at Ridgemont High captures the inertia and awkwardness of being a young adult but never successfully charts the emotional extremes. For all the realism it evokes, it nevertheless leaves you feeling a little cold.
Being the first at something usually comes with a price. With so many similar films following in its wake, the distance of time, along with the familiarity of its tone and the type characters that it helped to establish, have no doubt lessened the film’s impact somewhat. Despite that, it is consistently remarkable on re-watching Fast Times at Ridgemont High how fresh and relatable, even daring and dangerous, it still feels even after almost forty years. That is because it strikes at the heart of what makes a teen flick great.
These films have stuck around for so long and have been so successful because they speak to something universal in all of us; the awkwardness of growing up and falling in love for the first time. In this respect, Fast Times at Ridgemont High is one of the most realistic teen comedies ever made and for that reason alone, it can also stake a claim as being one of the best. It did things that had never been done before and did them so well that the reverberations are still rippling through modern cinema and, as long as they continue to make teen films, it is doubtful that they will ever stop.
Criterion’s new release of Fast Times at Ridgemont High comes from a new 4K restoration, with has been supervised by Amy Heckerling. The first thing to say, if you are familiar with the older Blu Ray release, is that a fair bit of saturation has been dialled back, leaving this new restoration looking a bit thinner and more washed out. However, the benefits are clear. The film looks far more natural, with skin tones especially getting more balanced and realistic across the board. The film is also more stable and sharper throughout. It might take a bit of getting used to if you are familiar with the older release, but there is no doubt that this is the superior release in terms of picture quality.
The extras on the disc are as follows:
- 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
Audio Commentary: The disc’s sole commentary (ported over from the previous Blu Ray release) features Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe. It is clear that they have remained firm friends since the filming of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and together they provide a funny, candid commentary that dives into all aspects of the film, from its soundtrack (Heckerling didn’t like some of the music cues she was forced to put in the film) to Cameron Crowe making an embarrassing faux pas with Phoebe Cates. It is also abundantly clear that they are both still in awe of Sean Penn. An essential listen for fans of the film.
Television Version: Criterion provide a 4:3 cable TV version of the film (with surprisingly good picture quality) on their new special edition. Initially I thought this might be quite a dull watch with only a few changes here and there, but this extra caught me off guard. There is a substantial amount of new and alternate scenes which, for fans of the film, will come as a delight. A key difference is that the TV version adds in a lot more character moments (especially between Stacy and Linda) with helps to add depth to a few of the film’s key relationships. You also get to see more of Nicolas Cage’s performance, which is a treat. It is also amusing how much of the sex/drugs/nudity has been stripped out of the TV version. Hardly anything remains which, considering that the film’s depiction of the above was one of the things that made it so unique, feels like some if its soul has been ripped out. I doubt if this will be anyone’s go to version of the film, but it does make for a really interesting alternative.
New Conversation with Olivia Wilde: In what is now becoming ubiquitous for discs produced during the pandemic, this is a half an hour Zoom-like call between Olivia Wilde (director of 2019’s excellent teen flick Booksmart) Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe. Wilde is clearly a huge fan of the film and she proves to be a fantastic host, steering the conversion into some really interesting areas. Loose, informal and fun to watch, this will be a treat for fans.
Reliving our Fast Times…Documentary: Another extra ported over from the previous release, this is a forty minute documentary on the making of the film. Shot in 1999, it is presented in 4:3. A decent ‘talking head’ making of documentary, it spends a lot of its running time discussing the casting for the film, then briefly goes into life on set/Sean Penn’s performance etc. This provides loads of great info and is a decent watch, but it is missing a few key cast and crew members (notably Jennifer Jason Leigh and Cameron Crowe) which is a shame.
Audio Discussion: This is an audio interview with Amy Heckerling, recorded after a screening of a few of her films (including Fast Times) at the AFI in 1982. The interview quickly opens up to the audience, who ask fairly interesting questions. However, the tone of the interview, along with Criterion’s decision to keep a single still photo up on the screen for the full 40 minute or so running time, gives the whole thing a slightly dull atmosphere. There are nuggets of gold in here but perhaps this is an extra for dedicated fans only.
The disc also comes with a booklet, which I did not receive with my review copy.
Overall, Criterion (as to be expected) have done a fantastic job with this new edition of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The new 4K restoration improves, on balance, the picture quality of the film compared to the previous release and there are some really interesting new extra features included – the star of which has to be TV version of the film, which will prove fascinating for fans. If you love Fast Times at Ridgemont High, this is new Criterion Edition is certainly worth a double dip.