Friday 13 April 2012

Movie Review: Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982)

A high school sex farce that set new standards for raunchiness, Fast Times At Ridgemont High is a bold comedy with the added credibility of being based on screenwriter Cameron Crowe's undercover observations at a real high school. A fresh cast of newcomers would spawn several future super stars, enhancing the movie's legendary status.

The coolest dude in the Ridgemont High School community is surfer Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn). He is constantly stoned, mellow beyond caring, but probably the smartest kid in school, if he would ever clear his head to find out. Around him swirls a tornado of uncontrolled hormones. 15-year-old Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who works at the coolest food outlet in the local hang-out mall, has yet to have any sexual encounters, but is eager to start. Her best friend Linda (Phoebe Cates) is encouraging her to go ahead and experiment, although Linda's claims to be sexually experienced sound more like bravado than reality.

Mark "Rat" Ratner (Brian Backer) is an usher at the mall movie theatre and is interested in Stacy, but despite the sage advice of his smooth friend Mike Damone (Robert Romanus), Mark is unsure and hesitant, leaving Stacy cold. Her rush to find physical intimacy ends with unsatisfactory sex, first with an older student and then unexpectedly with Damone; the result is an unwanted surprise. Meanwhile, Stacy's older brother Brad (Judge Reinhold) is bouncing between jobs trying to make enough money to pay for his car while plotting a break-up with his girlfriend and lusting after Linda.

Cameron Crowe was a freelance writer who went undercover at a San Diego high school and wrote the book on which the movie is based. This was the start of Crowe's film career, and artistic exaggerations aside, his script reflects the reality of the way teens talk, behave, and think.

Remarkably, Fast Times At Ridgemont High was Amy Heckerling's directing debut. Recognizing the depth of talent at her disposal, she quickly settles on an almost documentary style, her cameras simply recording teens living their misadventures. Crowe and Heckerling maintain sparkle and momentum by rotating scenes among their main characters.

Fast Times At Ridgemont High was Sean Penn's second screen role and his breakout performance. Dominating with utter ambivalence, Spicoli is the type of character who can either become a future corporate leader or an unidentified dead body in the gutter. Penn leaves us guessing, Spicoli operating in a constant fog of weed but demonstrating flashes of social and intellectual brilliance that hint at his potential.

Jennifer Jason Leigh, 20 years old but convincingly playing 15, is the centre of the film's exploration of teen sex. Curious, impressionable, eager, disappointed, then shocked, Stacy's finds the most difficult path to contentment, Crowe summarizing in Stacy the casual recklessness of youth. It's not necessarily a pretty picture of considered behaviour, but Leigh's natural performance shines with a non-judgemental honesty. Crowe and Heckerling throw Stacy on the screen as a mirror to reality. Her behaviour may be shocking for some, but rings true for many in her generation.

Phoebe Cates became best friends with Leigh in real life, and they are best friends here on the screen. Cates has less to do as Linda, but her stunning fantasy scene, dropping her red bikini top after emerging from the pool, catapulted her overnight to the front row of sex symbols for adolescent boys. In her other scenes, Cates gives Linda an appealing coyness, as her confident advice to Stacy begins to leak, possibly due to manufactured personal experience.

The boys chasing sex and companionship also do well, Brian Backer, Robert Romanus and Judge Reinhold creating memorable characters. Reinhold's Brad defines the well-meaning goof, Romanus gives Damone a slick veneer of cool that proves all to easy to puncture, while Backer's portrayal of Rat is an early example of the nerd who succeeds by being slow and steady.

In a rare strike of fortune for teen comedies, Fast Times At Ridgemont High proved to be a true training ground for fine future acting talent. Lurking deep in the cast list are future Academy Award winners Nicolas Cage (credited as Nicolas Coppola) and Forest Whitaker, as well as Anthony Edwards and Eric Stoltz.

The teens of Fast Times At Ridgemont High can't help misbehaving, and are nevertheless undoubtedly endearing, ensuring an everlasting mark in the history of high school comedies.

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