Taking a stroll through the stoner-clad, sex-crazed corridors of 1980s American suburbia is far too easy. Fast Time at Ridgemont High is just one of many features that look to capitulate to the freaks and geeks stuck in dead-end jobs, dealing with heartbreak and the wild ride of graduating. An ensemble like no other, with big names that would go on to bigger projects, this Amy Heckerling-directed feature pairs up the best of a generation and gives them little to do. That is the point. What is there to do at such an age? Music, film and art from generations before and after this one were all wondering what to do, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High does well to play into the hopeless and unknowable future that lies ahead for graduates around the world.
It helps that it is such a global and eternal image for the culture of not just the 80s but the modern era. Fast Times at Ridgemont High enables its characters with drink, sex and drugs as best it can, just to see where it gets them. Most of the time, it is nowhere, but Heckerling manages to make them feel like believable people getting into the screwed-up, high-wired antics of young adulthood. They all feel isolated and intentional or not, that skewers Fast Times at Ridgemont High and all its character intentions. Sean Penn may play the frontrunner for the lead character, but Jeff Spicoli is a one-trick lead. Most of these characters rely on just one stereotype or caricature-like status for their entire backstory.
That works for Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a feature as reliant on the knowable tones of the coming-of-age genre as it is on the strengths of Judge Reinhold, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Phoebe Cates. Each gives a fantastic performance, but they are stuck in a film that will offer their characters little depth. That back and forth of love and hate is featured well enough with good on-spot cameos from Nicolas Cage and Forest Whitaker, but little else for these men. They’d have to wait a few more years before they screeched through as frontrunners for great works, but at least they are supporting those that were ahead of them. Reinhold is the likely man at the forefront of storytelling strengths. His woefully down-on-his-luck Brad Hamilton is interesting and likeable, the two most important feelings Heckerling must push onto her characters.
Had they not been likeable or interesting, then this ensemble would struggle to capture much attention. But they are. They are steered in the right direction and with a semblance of tact and interest in their interactions. It is easy to write off many of the contemporary acts of coming-of-age features as shoddy and irresponsibly dull to appeal to the wasteful and aimless teens of the time, but Fast Time at Ridgemont High has no time for that. Those that fail fall hard, there are no easy escapes in southern California. Chronicled by Cameron Crowe, the writing is sharp and has all the quickfire, welcoming tones of a coming-of-age film with class.