52 films

Week 19: Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982)

Oh dear. So I’ve been away travelling for 3 months which has put me hopelessly behind on my 52 Weeks blog – this isn’t really Week 19, it must be Week 30 in reality!

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But I’m back to complete my 52 Weeks challenge – and with 20 weeks left, I reckon I can just do it – maybe!!

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My first film to watch after my return to the UK from Japan and the US was Amy Heckerling’s debut teen comedy Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Written by Cameron Crowe, and based on his book of the same name, it was a blast of fresh teenage air on its release in 1982. Showing teenagers to be sexually active, confused, show-off creatures that they really are, Fast Times perfectly captured the rise of the shopping mall (everyone in the movie works there; it gives you kudos) and the decline of clean-cut youth into stoner culture (predating Richard Linklater’s Slacker by almost a decade; Sean Penn’s Spicoli – who I hated – is a prototype Beavis / Butthead, giving even more props to the film’s zeitgeist-lassooing).

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The other thing I noticed about Fast Times is how John Hughes took just about every plotline from Heckerling’s coming-of-ager and turned it into a Hughes Special. Sixteen Candles particularly feels super-similar to Fast Times – except it’s been cleaned up, dusted down and reset in a more upscale neighbourhood. Molly Ringwald’s Samantha is simply Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Stacy with a nicer dress. It’s even more credit to Heckerling that she almost singlehandedly set a template for 80s teen flicks that was still in heavy rotation (to quote MTV) when she made Clueless. In 1995! Fourteen years on and teenagers were still doing the same dumb stuff they were doing in Ridgemont decades earlier. What a joy.

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Fast Times is full of bad acting (Judge Reinhold is terrible, I’m sorry to say) but also crammed with future Oscar winners (Penn, Nicolas Cage and Forest Whitaker all appear); with Phoebe Cates as pretty as she ever was (especially in the boobs-out scene which is totally out of place here – was it foisted onto Heckerling by the studio?). Jason Leigh is lovely but dumb, while the rest of the cast simply grin and gurn in the background as Heckerling captures the grim first rites of sex, pregnancy, dating and school spirit rallies.

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I loved it. It was fast and silly and all over the place, but had an honesty and a freshness that you just don’t see in teen films any more. I wish Heckerling had been able to do more with her filmmaking, because Fast Times captures teen culture in a clever, all-seeing proto-documentary style – but her last work was directing a couple of episodes of a TV show. Please come back, Amy. Today’s teenagers need you.

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