Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Jun 04, 2021
Web Exclusive

By Austin Trunick


The pinnacle of teen sex comedies receives its enshrinement in the hallowed Criterion Collection, and it’s a film that deserves it as much as any Kurosawa or Bergman feature. An influence on nearly every R-rated teen comedy to have come since, it set the bar for what the genre could achieve, striking a memorable balance of humor and heartfelt drama that was rarely rivaled by the films that came in its wake.

Based on a novel written by Cameron Crowe after he spent a semester undercover, as a twenty-four year old, at a SoCal high school, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) follows around a bunch of teens over the course of a school year. The cast boasts a stunning amount of soon-to-be-famous faces: perma-stoned surfer dude Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn), the virgin Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), lovelorn geek Mark Ratner (Brian Backer), fast-talking teen bookie Damone (Robert Romanus), responsible senior Brad (Judge Reinhold), gridiron hero Charles Jefferson (Forest Whitaker), and popular girl Linda (Phoebe Cates). If that’s not stacked enough, the movie also features sizeable roles for Ray Walston and Vincent Schiavelli as the movie’s only significant adult characters, and early appearances from Nicolas Cage, Amanda Wyss, Kelli Maroney, and Eric Stoltz.

As much as it does anyone, the story revolves around Stacy and Mark, two nice kids who like each other but are too inexperienced to know how they’re supposed to handle that. Their story overlaps with most of the other characters’, save for the movie’s most recognized character, the brain-fried Spicoli—who seems to live in his own world, both internally and externally. However, Spicoli isn’t there just for humor, as this sort of character would be in similar but lesser films—like most of his fellow classmates, Spicoli is given a transformative character arc at the hands of his casual nemesis, a stern history teacher named Mr. Hand.

Fast Times worked and continues to endure because it doesn’t pander to its audience: these characters behave and look (mostly) like actual teenagers, and a lot of credit must be paid to Crowe and director Amy Heckerling for trying to keep their comedy as real as possible. The movie’s gags, tender moments, and heartbreak all work because the characters are three dimensional, and the audience can believe these things might happen.

Notably, this Blu-ray release restores the original version of Stacy and Damone’s poolside love scene. Heckerling’s initial cut of the movie included full-frontal nudity—in the ever-briefest of flashes—which was required to be cut for the film not to receive an X-rating from the MPAA. To avoid this sentence, one shot was cropped so that Damone’s ding-dong was out-of-frame. This was a major sticking point not just for Heckerling, but actor Jennifer Jason Leigh, who spoke out against the censorship at the time of the film’s release, decrying it as a double-standard—why could women be shown naked, but not men? (They were told, simply, that the male anatomy was “too aggressive.”) With the director’s intent restored here, there’s an added vulnerability—not to mention, awkwardness—in the scene that speaks to adolescent anxieties around sex, which was lost in the last four decades’ worth of releases.

In addition to that fleeting moment of nudity, the Blu-ray disc also includes an all-new conversation between Crowe, Heckerling, and filmmaker Olivia Wilde, which covers the movie’s creation and lasting legacy. A commentary and making-of documentary are carried over from the 1999 release, as well the television version of the film—which cleans up the naughty bits, but adds in deleted scenes and alternate takes. It’s an excellent release, and should more than please the film’s many longtime fans.

(www.criterion.com/films/30464-fast-times-at-ridgemont-high)


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