Given its place in every rundown of top 80s movies, and infamous for that scene of Phoebe Cates exiting a pool and not feeling very attached to her bikini, you’d think that the film Fast Times at Ridgemont High would have more to offer than a slew of “hey, that guy became famous” moments.
Written by the former Rolling Stone journalist Cameron Crowe, based on his time undercover in a high school for senior year, Fast Times follows the exploits and lives of a several high school stereotypes.
Lacking the heart of Crowe’s semi-biographical film Almost Famous, as well as director Amy Heckerling’s satirical bite found in Clueless, the film gets by mainly on a streak of good will towards the nostalgia that permeates through the entire film. Revisiting it now after almost forty years there’s an amount of outdated humour and some joy to be found in it as a relic of it’s time, but we’ve been spoiled by much sharper comedy about high school – even in the 80s.
Much of the film’s joy comes from seeing Sean Penn as stoner Jeffrey “Jeff” Spicoli showing that before he became the most insufferable self serious blow hard he actually had a flair for comedy. As stoner Spicoli, Penn manages to capture the loveable goof that would become the standard for so many coming-of-age stories.
The film is a little less sure when it deals with Judge Reinhold’s Brad, as the senior, juggling jobs and his sense of duty as big brother the film can’t always manage to make him interesting or endearing. A scene in which he confronts his younger sister Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) over her getting an abortion feels a little outdated given todays standards and handling of issues.
As it remains the film works based in no small part to it’s appeal as a time capsule, the sort of film that teens in the 80s can relate to and return to but lacks the insight of John Hughes or the overblown drama of a Joel Schumacher film. Instead Heckerling and Crowe teeter on the edge of brilliance, and whenever they’re dealing with stoner comedy they’re in much more fertile ground than the more drama based issues of their supporting characters.
Like so many films from this era, the film works more or less in relation to the films that it inspired, and doesn’t entirely offer anything to an audience in 2021 wondering why the fleeting nudity of Cates or the soft peddled drama of Leigh’s quest for love were so important, given that since then we’ve seen much more hard hitting drama from the likes of Skins or Euphoria. It still provides an example of what passed for high comedy for the teenage audience of the time, as well as early examples of Nicolas Cage, Forest Whitaker and Anthony Edwards acting, but little else.
Fast Times At Ridgemont High is available on DVD & Blu-Ray May 17.