Splitsider

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

Watching Fast Times at Ridgemont High For the First Time

Growing up, I didn’t realize there was an entire subgenre of movies dedicated to reminiscing about high school. I especially didn’t realize that there was an entire subgenre inside that subgenre dedicated to doing drugs and having sex in high school. The former never made sense to me because I didn’t do anything in high school worth reminiscing about, and the latter made even less sense for reasons that are probably obvious at this point.

High school wasn’t very fun for me, but it wasn’t traumatic or amusing either. I was really small, but it wasn’t a big deal. I was picked on, but not enough to complain about. I was smart, but not enough to apply myself. I had a few good teachers and a few good friends. But mostly, high school is a benign, slightly uncomfortable blur now, and like any other arbitrary chunk of my childhood, sort of pointless to define, let alone romanticize, based on what grade I was in. My identity at 16, in contrast to those of Bueller, Spicoli and Dobler, was embryonic, ambiguous and largely uneventful.

I’m a bit fascinated, then, to be introduced to some of the pillars of those genres so many years after I wouldn’t have related to them. There are some fantastic movies in there: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Dazed and Confused, Clueless, and the film I watched for the first time this week, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But instead of reminding me of high school — let alone striking a chord of fond memory — these movies play to me like works of pure fantasy: a world in which high school matters, students are the young, ambitious, naive and pure versions of the adults they will later become and the drama and passion of being 16 is immortalized on film because it actually means something to the rest of the world.

It doesn’t, of course. But to be honest, I like it. I like that these movies exist, because it gives me a vicarious taste of what I never experienced, seen from a perspective that, in the case of Amy Heckerling’s films, has the proper proportion of nostalgia and irony. And Fast Times is a perfect example. Classic rock, muscle cars, cute girls, pot, sex and fast food jobs. I had none of those things in high school (and wouldn’t until literally years later), but it’s entertaining to watch anyway.

Sean Penn is the guy most commonly associated with Fast Times at Ridgemont High these days, and even though his role is relegated to the B-plot, I can see why his character has endured. He’s great. If I didn’t know anything about the rest of his career, I would have assumed he was a talentless stoner they brought in off the beach and paid in Hawaiian shirts and Fritos. He’s so perfectly oblivious it looks like he showed up on set by accident. It’s a pretty impressive turn to be so broad and also so believable, especially in a movie that tends to be more earnest and deliberate in the rest of its scenes. He’s got the lion’s share of the written jokes, too, but some of the funniest stuff in the film comes from his reactions, obviously an organic byproduct of his total dedication to the role.

Besides Penn, the laughs are pretty few and far between at Ridgemont High, which isn’t a detriment to the film at all — it’s just a pretty straight-faced, if light-hearted, story being told. There are some good moments with Ray Walston’s history teacher character, and Judge Reinhold’s no-win job situation makes for some laughs, but mostly it’s a film that focuses on being amiable, taking fond jabs at the student archetypes of the early 80s, and playing around in a world of hopeful, shiftless youths.

The plotlines get a little jumbled at times, and the part of me that pulls for every character to be redeemable (particularly in a story like this one) is a little put out by the decision to deny Robert Romanus’ character redemption, but overall it’s a fun, hectic ensemble film that, like Dazed and Confused, succeeds on its ability to show a big group of characters running around, being kids and living a very uncertain, confusing portion of their lives to the fullest.

So does Fast Times at Ridgemont High hold up? Definitely, in the same way that any time capsule does. This film, and its contemporaries, play now like artifacts from an era that I didn’t experience, and one that may not have existed at all. In that way, they’re like spaghetti Westerns or film noir — they are genres of fantasy that illuminate the beauty, darkness, drama or adventure in their real-world subjects in a way that is more effective than simply documenting it, or in the case of comedy, just writing a bunch of jokes. Maybe there isn’t much to be said, or learned, or laughed at, about high school without first making it a lot cooler than it actually is. Maybe, like a lot of art, exaggeration is the only effective way to tell the truth about it.

I wonder if my high school experience would have been informed or even improved by having seen these ‘80s teen movies when they could have tapped into what I was feeling and doing at the time. Maybe they would have helped me glimpse the appeal and significance in those formative years in a way I never thought to view them. Or maybe I would have valued them less because so much in them would have been foreign to me. Either way, I’m glad to see them now. I may not have had a high school experience worth committing to film, but it’s nice to think that there’s a common thread to be found. Even if we have to create a fantasy world to find it.

Alden Ford is an actor, writer and comedian living in Brooklyn. He performs regularly in NYC with his sketch/improv group Sidecar.

  • http://www.four-corners.com Drew Kerr

    Wow. I can't believe this article did not contain one mention of the famous Phoebe Cates fantasy scene, the holy grail of many young men in the 80s.

    • http://www.sidecarcomedy.com Alden Ford

      I figured it sorta speaks for itself.

  • Rezpect

    Nice piece! "Dazed & Confused" was me in High School minus the sex, which I also never had until College.

  • JP Trostle

    I wonder if my high school experience would have been informed or even improved by having seen these ‘80s teen movies when they could have tapped into what I was feeling and doing at the time.

    "Fast Times" was released a few weeks after I graduated from high school. I saw it with a long-time girl friend (platonic) and fellow grad who had been in the trenches with me since middle school.

    I remember coming out into the parking lot stunned. Except for the sex (did I mention platonic? I believe I did), I was amazed how well they nailed it. Sure, it was a highly concentrated and polished version of high school, but in a strange way it made me feel better about my experience.

    I'd been thru awkward dates like that, car crashes like that — yes, plural — knew stoners like Spicoli and lovable losers like Brad (hell, I WAS Brad) and had just finished muddling thru the ennui of it all — and it let me think that, maybe, when you boiled it all down, what my friends and I had gone thru might eventually be seen as entertaining.

    Plus, that soundtrack? AWEsome.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bryan-Keller/729777638 Bryan Keller

    "This film, and its contemporaries, play now like artifacts from an era that I didn’t experience, and one that may not have existed at all."

    Oh, it existed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Eric-Johnston/1080258959 Eric Johnston

    I agree with JP. Fast Times came out the summer between my Junior and senior year in High School. It nailed the southern California HS experience of the early 80s perfectly. I knew a real life counterpart to every character in the movie. I WAS Ratner. I even had the girl that liked me but I was too naive to figure out what to do about it.

  • JP Trostle

    Heck, I grew up in Pennsylvania and it still rang true.

    I agree with Alden that all the Hughes movies, though similar in style and tone to Fast Times, were pure fantasy. (Though, a friend did once throw a party when his parents went out of town one weekend that turned into something very much like the one in 16 Candles. Even now, 30 years later, the "Prom Night Bachelor Club" is infamous in our old school district.)

    On the other hand, both Dazed & Confused and, more recently, Freaks & Geeks, had more of an honest, almost documentarian approach to their subjects, in spite of their affectations.

  • JP Trostle

    Don't forget, too, that Fast Times was based on Cameron Crowe's non-fiction book of the same name, a bit of New Journalism reportage he did after going back to school undercover for a year in the late '70s.