Film Review: Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Also known as: Fast Times (working title, informal title)
Release Date: August 13th, 1982
Directed by: Amy Heckerling
Written by: Cameron Crowe
Based on: Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story by Cameron Crowe
Music by: various pop bands
Cast: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Brian Backer, Robert Romanus, Ray Walston, Amanda Wyss, Forest Whitaker, Vincent Schiavelli, Lana Clarkson, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, Nicolas Cage, Kelli Maroney, Scott Thomson, Taylor Negron, Lana Clarkson, James Russo, Pamela Springsteen

Refugee Films, Universal Pictures, 90 Minutes

Review:

“Why don’t you get a job, Spicoli?” – Brad Hamilton, “What for?” – Jeff Spicoli, “You need money.” – Brad Hamilton, “All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz and I’m fine.” – Jeff Spicoli

Teen sex comedies were all the rage in the early 1980s. However, unlike all the others, Fast Times at Ridgemont High was much more than just a teen sex comedy. It was a film with purpose, heart and characters that you actually cared for and felt connected to. It had high drama, human emotion but it was still true to the spirit of the genre it was actually better than.

There were several factors that contributed to this movie being better than one would expect at first glance.

First, the story came from a book written by Cameron Crowe, who spent some time undercover in high school to capture the real lives of the teenagers around him. The book was full of true stories, which got adapted into this fictional movie tale. Crowe’s work gave this film a sense of realism and human emotion that other films like it were lacking.

Also, this was directed by Amy Heckerling and even though it was her first feature film, she was young, hip and connected to a lot of cool people at the time. She gave this picture a sort of life and energy that it wouldn’t have had otherwise. She also pulls off similar magic with 1995’s beloved teen comedy Clueless.

Additionally, this film benefits from having an incredible cast for its time. It has Sean Penn, just before he became a superstar, as well as Jennifer Jason Leigh, one of the best actresses of her generation. The shy kind of nerdy character was played by Brian Backer, who had already won a Tony Award the year before for his leading role in Woody Allen’s The Floating Light Bulb on Broadway. You’ve also got quintessential ’80s cool guy Judge Reinhold, the always lovable Phoebe Cates, Robert Romanus, future Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, Nicolas Cage, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, Amanda Wyss, Kelli Maroney, Scott Thomson, as well as veterans Ray Walston and Vincent Schiavelli. How many other ’80s teen sex comedies can boast a lineup that impressive? And this didn’t even have a single person from the Brat Pack in it.

The film is well balanced between all of its main characters. It also doesn’t showcase the token stoner as just a token stoner. The chemistry between Penn’s Spicoli and Walston’s Mr. Hand is fabulous and makes for some of the best moments in the film. Seeing Walston go that extra step for a student that most teachers would just roll their eyes at is both sweet and refreshing. I could’ve watched a spinoff movie of just Spicoli and Mr. Hand and been happy, even if it had a lackluster script.

I also loved the chemistry between best buds Mark Ratner (Backer) and Mike Damone (Romanus). The shy Ratner needs Damone’s help in getting with the ladies and their exchanges are hilarious and entertaining. Life throws these best buds a curveball though but it was great seeing real friendship conquer all.

There are several good stories sprinkled throughout this ensemble piece. And it is sort of timeless in that the jokes still work, the characters are amusing and even though this gets very serious at points, it is never short on laughs and keeps things generally lighthearted.

It also has one of the best soundtracks of its decade.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a perfect template on how to create a teen coming of age movie. Sure, it is sex heavy, as it was the ’80s, but it’s light-years more mature than similar films like Private School and The Last American Virgin.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: Dazed and ConfusedThe Last American Virgin and Private School. Also, Gremlins, as that features both Phoebe Cates and Judge Reinhold. Plus, Clueless, another teen coming of age comedy directed by Heckerling.

Film Review: Singles (1992)

Release Date: September 18th, 1992
Directed by: Cameron Crowe
Written by: Cameron Crowe
Music by: Paul Westerberg
Cast: Bridget Fonda, Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick, Sheila Kelley, Jim True, Bill Pullman, Matt Dillon, Tom Skerritt, Jeremy Piven, Eric Stoltz, Tim Burton, Chris Cornell, Eddie Vedder, Peter Horton

Warner Bros., 99 Minutes

Review:

“Look, Debbie, I’m kind of having a bad sugar crash. Do you think you could just, you know, hold it down?” – Pam

Since I revisited Reality Bites a few weeks back, I figured that I would also look at the film it is most often compared to: Singles.

Reality Bites didn’t hold up well to the test of time but Singles does, as it works much better as a time capsule to a bygone era that features the Seattle grunge movement just before it became a huge thing that overtook American culture for a little while. Also, it just feels more authentic than Reality Bites and doesn’t rely too heavily on one-dimensional archetypes and Gen-Xers’ philosophical and hypocritical ramblings.

As a motion picture, this is a much better body of work than Reality Bites but it also features a veteran director in Cameron Crowe, where the other film was the directorial debut of a very young Ben Stiller off of the script of a teenage girl. Not to knock Reality Bites, but it does seem much more juvenile than Singles and is full of mostly unlikable characters. Singles, on the other hand, has mostly likable characters, even in the form of this film’s version of its rock star wannabe.

All that being said, I still think that Reality Bites has more value on repeated viewings. Yes, Singles is better but it is also a bit drab at times and even with a large ensemble of characters, the film plays things really safe and there isn’t enough tension to make you feel much of anything. You just see the characters as nice, mostly boring, young people confused about things like love and life because they still lack experience. With Reality Bites, even if the two main characters are selfish and pretty unlikable, there is enough tension and magnetism between them that you feel something.

Where Singles excels is in the fact that it is shot better, directed better and has actors that are able to feel like real, genuine characters. And this film just feels more mature, even if it is about young people finding their way into adulthood.

This also has a cool factor because of the real world legendary musicians who appear in this before they even reached greatness. You have Chris Cornell, Layne Staley and Eddie Vedder before his band was even called Pearl Jam. You also have an acting cameo from the it director of the time, Tim Burton.

I still liked Singles. It isn’t a film I will want to go back to anytime soon but everyone was good in it and it felt more like a social semidocumentary than an actual fictional film, which Crowe was probably going for and succeeded at achieving. This felt like one of those earlier seasons of MTV’s The Real World, before producers realized that manufacturing fights created big ratings. You know, back when The Real World actually seemed real.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: Reality BitesSubUrbiaEmpire RecordsS.F.W. and Clerks.