Thursday, March 17, 2016

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

1982's FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH is often quite unfairly lumped in with the myriad of other high school sex comedies of its day.  The multiplex in that time was overrun with insipid movies that reduced collegiates to mere hormone driven knuckle draggers (though, some real life counterparts really were like that, I digress...), but once in a while a film like THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN, at least in its second half, would dare to portray some hard truths about "the best years of your life".  FAST TIMES was another.  All the usual exploitation elements -at least thematically- are there, but this Cameron Crowe (SAY ANTHING, ALMOST FAMOUS) scripted film is several cuts above your average Clearasil and breasts saga.  I've always found this movie unique as it dares to consider the inevitable fallout, the consequences for the actions in which these wet behind the ears kids engage.  It's not just about the gag.

Crowe based the screenplay on his own experiences.  Not from his teenage days but later on, when he went "undercover"  in a SoCal. high school.  Would he find that things were much different in the late 70s? The students he met loved to go to the mall, get high, surf, scope out the opposite sex.  Certain things specific to the location and time period but otherwise the same sort of pursuits and drives that have dominated the landscape since high school began.

FAST TIMES has an ensemble of up and coming actors who are talented and attractive.  Many would go on to greater success throughout the '80s and some beyond.  Folks like Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Eric Stoltz, Forrest Whitaker, Anthony Edwards.  Nicolas Cage (back when he still used his uncle's surname of Coppola) can be seen fleetingly.  And of course Sean Penn in his only bona fide goofball role to date as Jeff Spicoli.

The film takes place during the characters' senior year as they go about the business of taking classes, playing sports, working fast food jobs, experiencing their "first time".  Most situations are played for humor, but the laughs come from keen observation more than inherent vulgarity.  While a scene such as the one where Linda (Cates) tries to teach Stacy (Leigh) how to perform oral sex via use of vegetables may sound sleazy, it is not quite played that way.  It feels organic, another privileged glimpse into youth culture.

Stacy's trajectory leads to some serious repercussions as she seeks love and sex, mistaking the mutual exclusivity of them.  Director Amy Heckerling (CLUELESS) handles these scenes with understatement.  Crowe never judges Stacy or anyone else. No heavy handed moralizing or reactionary point of view. But yes there can be consequences for a certain kind of behavior. Crowe lets his characters be, and while we're obviously seeing a "greatest hits" of high school life (with some embellishment, I'm sure), everything feels realistic. The uncertainty, the false machismo, the shyness. Then some who are too wasted to care.  You might even believe a guy like Spicoli would order a pizza to class.  How his teacher, Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) handles this and other moments with the Vans wearing surfer bud are very entertaining.

Mainly, FAST TIMES is a stylized document, a time capsule.  An intelligent, and without question at times raunchy ninety minutes that neither denigrates nor necessarily celebrates youth culture. The soundtrack is filled with fun tunes, including The Cars' "Moving in Stereo", which accompanies one of the most memorable scenes in cinematic history.  One especially popular with the male population.  It manages to be exhilarating, cringe inducing, and hilarious at the same time.  I guess you can say that about most of this movie.

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