‘Universal employed not a single female director from the dawn of the sound era until Amy Heckerling for 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. That’s nearly 60 years without a woman – and the other studios were not much better,’ writes Helen O’Hara in her new book Women Vs Hollywood. It’s a pity this ground-breaking woman director could not have chosen (or been given) a better property. The Criterion Collection have recently been releasing movies directed by women. Fast Times has been dusted off, repackaged and released on Blu-ray. But a great movie this does not make.
The world probably knows more than it ever needs to about the life and rites of the American high school – the jocks and nerds, the cheerleaders and mean girls. Ever since George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) the rich seam of the US educational system has been mined by filmmakers. From Porky’s (1981) to Spring Breakers (2012), from Grease (1978) to Moxie (2021), high schoolers have burst onto the screen with varying degrees of success.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High was based on a book by the 22-year-old Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe, who wrote the screenplay. He had gone undercover at a school in his native San Diego and wrote up his findings, all bongs and bonking; a world away from the innocent bubble gum fun of American Graffiti.
We open at Ridgemont Mall where the high schoolers hang out or work part-time flipping burgers and looking for romance. The students are an assortment of near-grotesques: supercool stoner and awesome surf dude Spicoli (Sean Penn as ugly and static as a toby jug); the growling star football player Charles (Forrest Whittaker) whose fancy car Spicoli wrecks; the 15-year-old Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), desperate to have her cherry popped, and who takes advice on blowjobs from prom queen Linda (Phoebe Cates) whose jilted boyfriend (Judge Reinhold) she discovers self-pleasuring as he peeping-toms at a pool party.
All the elements are in place for what ought to be a raunchy, rampaging comedy with the added frisson of nudity, sex and drug references, and full-blooded swearing. There are oddball teachers, raging hormones and a rock soundtrack (Led Zeppelin, anyone?) and a youthful cast, many of whom went on to much greater things Nicholas Cage has a bit part for example. The movie has a great reputation and trails much expectation before it. And although it still has its fans (namely folk who grew up in the ’80s), from nearly 40 years distance it shows its age. The script is flabby, with none of the sparkle and zip audiences now expect. The humour often as cheerless as a punctured whoopee cushion. The direction is flat and even the acting is a tad lame in places. Much of this can be put down to the inexperience of Heckerling and her equally untried cast.
What was a risqué bestseller lifting the lid on the hothouse high school is mangled in the Hollywood machine; a teensploitation flick that sadly never quite adds up to the sum of its parts.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 17 May 2021