I wanted to review Fast Times at Ridgemont High as it’s coming back to theaters for its 35th anniversary in August, and I thought now would be the best time to give my thoughts on this coming-of-age classic from the 80’s. I found it fascinating that as I watched the movie, I saw some Oscar nominated and winning actors which included: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Forest Whitaker, and a “blink and you’ll miss him” scene of Nicolas Cage. This assortment of talent was not wasted, as this is a very fun film that’s soaked in the 80’s aesthetic.
The performances overall were good, nothing too spectacular, but good. The acting here is reminiscent of how other actors performed in 80’s movies such as The Karate Kid, Weird Science, and Sixteen Candles. The standout is Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli though, as he does a great job at presenting himself as the slacking, yet somewhat charming high school student. It’s been said that this was the first notable instance of the “surfer stoner” portrayed on film, as we see scenes of a hotboxed VW, the words “gnarly” and “totally awesome” used frequently, and the “accent”, I suppose, that’s most often associated with surfer stoners that we see in media today. Aside from Penn, there weren’t many other “noteworthy” performances, but they were all serviceable.
While the performances all around were pretty good, the story is a bit wonky. The overall plot revolves around Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character Stacy, as she struggles a bit with the urges that come with teenage years, but ultimately finds that a healthy and loving relationship is more important and fulfilling than casual sex and dating. The problem, however, is that there are quite a few subplots surrounding Spicoli and Judge Reinhold’s character Brad that seem a bit unnecessary. While they add some personality to the characters and make them a bit more enjoyable, they ultimately don’t have much of an impact on the story as a whole and could have been reworked a little to better connect to the plot at large. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun to see Spicoli screw around and give his teacher and classmates a hard time, and see Brad struggle with juggling his work-life and his social-life, but these side stories kind of seem to slow the overall progression of the plot.
Another gripe I have with the film delves a bit into spoiler territory, so I’ll put a spoiler tag here and a no spoiler tag at the end. SPOILER I have a bit of a problem with the ending of the film, as Stacy and this boy named Mike have sex which results in Stacy getting pregnant. Mike demands she get an abortion and she agrees, but he has to pay half and drive her to the clinic. Mike doesn’t have enough money to pay half, so he decides to keep the money he has, ditch her, and force her to go to the clinic alone and pay for the whole operation. This is a pretty shitty thing to do obviously, so I thought that karma would be put in place here, but it wasn’t. Stacy’s friend, Linda, finds out about the whole ordeal and spray paints “little prick” on Mike’s car and locker; I know it’s a knock on his penis-size which is a bit embarrassing, but the punishment wasn’t really congruent with the offense. I could’ve gone with something a bit more severe, but I guess he got his comeuppance when he was busted for scalping some Ozzy tickets. NO SPOILERS
Where the film faults a bit in its story, it succeeds in building its setting and engrossing the audience into the life of a high schooler in the 80’s. I didn’t grow up in that era, and I understand that some of the stuff in the film falls under hyperbole, but from anecdotal accounts from friends and family, it does seem to have the overall feel and culture of an early 80’s high school. The students are a bit wild, there’s banners displaying school spirit all along the hallways, there’s the pep rally that’s just an excuse to get out of class, there’s students unsure of the ins and outs of dating and sex; it’s the experience a kid would have in high school.
This film is filled with iconic images and quotes, with the aforementioned performance from Sean Penn, the overall look of the school, and Phoebe Cates’ famous poolside scene. The soundtrack is pretty good too, with features from Jackson Browne, Jimmy Buffett, and Donna Summer, just to name a few. Although this film has some problems in its story, it makes up for it with its charm and fun, while also engrossing the audience into the lives of these wacky teenagers.
Favorite Scene: Spicoli orders a pizza
Images courtesy of Snakkle, Linsonco, AMC Network, and Universal Pictures