Friday 6 January 2023

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Director: Amy Heckerling
Writer: Cameron Crowe, from his book
Stars: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Brian Backer, Robert Romanus and Ray Walston

Index: The First Thirty.

I’ve seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High before, but not as often as you might expect because I’m British. This wasn’t the pivotal cinematic representation of my youth the way it was so many of my American friends.

Initially, it feels like it wants to do the same thing as The Best of Times but in our reality. It’s another film with a young ensemble cast who are coming of age, the token adult this time being Ray Walston, best known until this point for My Favorite Martian but now best known for playing Mr. Hand, nemesis of Jeff Spicoli.

But it feels vulgar not safe, film not TV, real not fake. Sure, it does that with far more relish than was needed, but it makes its point. After all, The Best of Times knows that kids about to be adults haven’t even heard of sex. Fast Times knows that they don’t think about anything else. Well, maybe Van Halen tickets. Or weed.

The first people we see are happily looking at other people’s asses. Underage girls chat about when they lost their virginity. Spicoli’s bedroom walls and locker are covered in porn. Phoebe Cates teaches Jennifer Jason Leigh how to give a blowjob. At school. In the cafeteria. Using a carrot.

It doesn’t take long to get serious, because Leigh, as Stacy Hamilton, is a fifteen year old who climbs out of her bedroom window to go on a date with a twenty-six year old man. She pretends to be nineteen, so don’t jump to the wrong conclusions. However, everything else unfolds exactly as you expect. It’s painful. It’s not glamorous. He doesn’t call. No, he doesn’t knock her up, but the next guy does and that means an abortion scene that her parents are not supposed to know about.

Roger Ebert hated this movie and I wonder if he changed his mind over time. When it was new, he saw it as another gross-out teen sex comedy, which isn’t unfair, but he found the serious parts out of place, given that context.

Why it works so well for me is that it’s both a gross-out teen sex comedy and a serious look at coming of age in America in 1982 because it should have been both.

Some kids were absolutely having the time of their lives, getting laid every night by their dream partners, falling out of the marijuana smoke inside their VW vans, driving cool cars and earning a fortune at All American Burger.

But some kids weren’t.

Some kids were losing their jobs, getting dumped, having terrible sexual experiences, discovering that their partners had cheated on them and needing abortions.

It’s fair to say that Fast Times acknowledges both and I don’t see that as a bad thing.

Given the quality of The Best of Times, or the lack of it, it’s not surprising to discover that Nicolas Cage’s name does not show up before the title. Top billed is Sean Penn, who had also debuted a year earlier, in Taps, not as the star but ahead of Tom Cruise. He’s the most overtly memorable character and my favourite scene has to be the one where he has pizza delivered to his history class with Mr. Hand.

The most important characters to the film are played by Leigh and Brian Backer, as a pair of eager but awkward young things, Stacy and Mark, who go through quite a soap opera over their sophomore year at high school. Both are exactly what the roles needed.

Both Stacy and Mark have an older friend to give them advice. Initially it seems that these experienced confidantes, Linda and Mike, are comparative experts but, eventually, we learn—as do the kids—that they aren’t wiser at all, just older. As Linda, Cates is an absolute dream—and the scene in which she’s precisely that for Stacy’s older brother Brad, is breathtaking—and Robert Romanus is excellent too.

Other prominent actors in supporting roles early in their careers include Judge Reinhold, as Brad, who’s given a whole narrative arc of his own, and Forest Whitaker as a star football player, who mostly serves as a key side story to Spicoli’s arc. Both are excellent and it’s in their stories that we get a glimpse of Nicolas Cage, again credited under his real name of Nicolas Coppola.

And glimpse is certainly the most accurate word to use there, because, even though he’s given two scenes, both are so short that you would miss them if you blink.

The first is during a pivotal scene for Brad, who’s living it up in high school. He’s doing well at All American Burger, where he’s their Employee of the Month; he’s about to pay off his 1960 Buick LeSabre, which he drives with overt pride, and he has a cute girlfriend, even if he plans to dump her so that he can be the eligible bachelor in senior year. And then it all goes horribly wrong for him, when he insults a complaining customer. Look behind him and you’ll see Michael Wyle and Nicolas Cage as a pair of colleagues watching him get fired.

The second happens during a football game. Whitaker is Charles Jefferson, who’s huge for his age, and Spicoli has befriended his younger brother, who lets him drive Charles’s beloved 1979 Chevy Camaro. After he crashes this in a memorable scene, he promises to get it fixed but instead sets it up to appear that it was trashed by fans of Ridgemont’s rival, Lincoln High School. Whitaker is brutal in their match and wins the game almost single-handed. Up there in the bleachers, applauding him on, is a briefly seen Nicolas Cage.

At the time, Reinhold believed it was his big break. “I thought my career would really take off after that role. Instead Sean’s career took off.” It was a huge boost for Penn and Cates, as well as for others, but Cage wasn’t one.

While entire books could be written about this film—starting with the fact that it was an adaptation of one, which Rolling Stone editor Cameron Crowe wrote about the year that he spent undercover as a student at Clairemont High School in San Diego—there’s not much more to be said about Cage’s part in it.

He doesn’t speak and he’s easy to miss and, as successful as the picture was—initially, and over time, as it grew into something that few involved expected—that success had nothing to do with him and had no part in spurring his career onward.

That break would come next, in whichever film we count as being next.

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