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Friday, September 22, 2023

‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ Undercuts Teenage Innocence

For viewers old enough to live through it, the opening credits of Fast Times at Ridgemont High represent a blissful trip down memory lane. For viewers too young to have experienced this drive of nostalgia, life as a teenager in the 1980s is even intoxicating from the outside. The blaring sound of The Go-Go‘s hit song, “We Got the Beat,” a lively shopping mall filled with teen employment, tomfoolery, and romance, record stores, a movie theater, arcades, and the distinguishable neon-colored fashion all crystalize the image of the decade among the public consciousness 40 years later. To top it all off, there’s not a cell phone in sight! The ’80s really were that great, weren’t they? This conclusion is ultimately subjective, but the 1982 high school comedy by Clueless director Amy Heckerling shows that the innocence of adolescence, while seemingly enduring, is bound to shatter amid the glamor and excess of the period.

‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ Embraces Lively High School Culture

Image via Universal Pictures

Fast Times at Ridgemont High follows the lives of an ensemble of Southern California students throughout a single school year, including popular senior Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold), his younger sister Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and her wise older friend, Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates), and lackadaisical stoner Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn). Throughout the 1982 film, the general romp and enthusiasm that the decade evokes among the public is prevalent. Considering that screenwriter Cameron Crowe posed as an undercover student to research his subjects, the slice-of-life quality of Fast Times ought to affirm that life in the ’80s was truly as wonderful as it’s romanticized to be. Due to its authenticity, the film does not set out to be revisionist or subversive. As a result, Heckerling’s film tends to be lumped in with the plethora of teen sex comedies that dominated the period. However, the film’s appreciation of its characters as adult-like independents builds towards a bittersweet conclusion.

Within the orbit of the tumultuous whirlwind of high school, teenagers hardly resemble teens in their most juvenile state. While this stage of human development is understood to act as the bridge between childhood and adulthood, the characters of Fast Times show few signs of growing pains. Not only do all major characters, excluding the carefree Spicoli, possess jobs, but they ostensibly run the show, barely having any oversight from upper management. Compared to films that examine the lives of early twenty-somethings who are stuck in perceived dead-end jobs, working at a pizza parlor, hamburger joint, or movie theater is embraced as a facet of youthful spirit. For Stacy and Linda, Brad, and Mark “Rat” Ratner (Brian Backer), respectively, this might not be what their careers entail, but the satisfaction of independence in the workforce is a source of enthusiasm for them and their environment.

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The glossy portrayal of high school in Fast Times follows the sage advice of Mike Damone (Robert Romanus), the upperclassman who mentors Mark on how to be an idyllic masculine teen. “Act like wherever you are, that’s the place to be,” Damone proclaims as one of his complimentary life lessons to his friend. Any of the various montages depicting the bustling scene of everyday high school life attests to that mantra. Even if what the audience is observing in a given frame is unflattering, Fast Times is proud to take its viewers on this tumultuous ride. Heckerling graciously straddles the line between documentary-like, fly-on-the-wall presentation of the truth and farcical exploitation of teenage debauchery. Without the nefarious undertones behind it, her direction of high school mirrors the rousing depiction of the criminal underworlds by the likes of Martin Scorsese. You know the drawbacks of this universe, but wouldn’t it just be a blast to go back to high school and spend Friday nights at the mall and show off your slick car? Being a high school student in the 1980s is the thing to be.

‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s Teenagers Want To Succeed

Image via Universal Pictures

Brad is the recognizable cool kid from every high school. However, he did not obtain his renowned social status by being a jock. Brad is the idyllic teen of the ’80s because he is exceptional. The unexpected pride he has for his job as a fry cook and fondness for his Buick that he intends to pay off are symbols of exceptionalism. The values of the Ronald Reagan era champion adolescents like Brad who strive to attain wealth and a strong work ethic. Brad carries himself as career-focused, not a kid who was ordered to get a job by his parents. Brad possesses the confidence and aspiration of an adult, especially one living in a period of consumerism and capital growth.

Under the guise of Linda, Stacy Hamilton is determined to advance her sexuality and romantic practices. She interprets her youth as a detriment. The hope of being an adult through her behavior is a source of validation for her. When Stacy and Mark go on a date, they dine at a dimly-lit German restaurant, one that evokes an adult-like elegance. They sit in outrageously-sized chairs, which serves as a sharp comedic gag, but also enforces their quest to be sophisticated and adult-like. This image of them in the dining establishment inadvertently makes them look like kids again. Awkward instances like these, or when Linda instructs Stacy on the proper techniques of oral sex, are sprinkled in throughout Fast Times. Nonetheless, its subjects maintain an innocence that washes out the panic of teenage angst that defined the work of the iconic ’80s director, John Hughes.

Director Amy Heckerling Shatters Innocence in ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’

Image via Universal Pictures

Like other films that immerse the viewer into an intoxicating or transgressive environment, the good times and innocent romp slowly crumble upon themselves. The swagger that Brad carries himself suddenly falters when he is fired from his job following a heated exchange with an unhappy customer. In no time, his luster is replaced by the shame of wearing a ridiculous pirate wardrobe as part of his employment at a disreputable seafood joint. By the end of the film, he is reduced to running the register of a convenience store. Earlier, we see Brad’s relationship with his girlfriend, Lisa (Amanda Wyss), on thin ice, as he interprets their romance solely through sexual gratification. During the period of Brad’s downfall, his male fantasies are undercut by the embarrassment of Linda interrupting him during self-pleasuring. The famous Phoebe Cates nude scene would be fetishized in most ’80s comedies, but in Fast Times, it is deployed with a sense of biting black humor. An epilogue postscript states that he is eventually promoted to the manager of the store. Despite working a thankless job flipping hamburgers earlier in the film, Brad’s entrapment in the service industry reconsiders his past hubris.

Stacy, who is curious about the precarious world of sexuality, suffers perhaps the harshest consequences. Ascribing to why Fast Times stands out from his teen comedy counterparts, her relationship with sex and romance is never gratuitous. Following an unplanned pregnancy, Stacy undergoes an abortion. Damone, who is responsible for her pregnancy, refuses to aid her in this difficult process. Just moments ago in the film, there was a pool party at the Hamilton residence. Now, the characters are discussing the expenses of an abortion. In the sequence where Stacy attempts to pick up a ride from a stranger to a clinic, she is characterized as a lost child without any direction. Suddenly, her adolescence is a liability, as she is unable to take herself to the clinic.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is true to its title. In under 90 minutes, Amy Heckerling moves at a blistering pace, not only showcasing an entire school year but the rise and fall of teenage innocence among a set of adolescents partaking in adult-like circumstances. When relating to discovering true happiness, the students of Ridgemont High are still in their primordial state. For the adjacent teen sex comedies that were ubiquitous throughout the decade, aftershocks and consequences were usually ignored. Toxic male behavior found a way to be excused, and female characters were deprived of sympathy. Fast Times manages to depict a sobering tale of the general anxieties that permeate adolescence while adhering to its genre expectations.

The Big Picture

  • The 1982 film Fast Times at Ridgemont High captures the essence of high school in the ’80s, with its lively atmosphere and youthful spirit.
  • The characters in the film embrace the independence and satisfaction of working in jobs like pizza parlors and movie theaters, reflecting the enthusiasm of youth.
  • While the film initially presents a glossy portrayal of high school life, it ultimately shatters the innocence of its characters, exploring the consequences and vulnerabilities of adolescence.

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