Coming of age films are always mainstays of the movie industry. In the hands of talented filmmakers stocked with a good script and a talented cast, the trials and tribulations of high school students can be shaped into compelling narratives of interest to movie goers of all ages. Yesterday, this column reviewed “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” a successful high school comedy from the 1980s. “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” from 1982, is now considered a classic, earning a place in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
Set in California in the early 1980s, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” follows the lives of several high school students. Their immature decision-making often leads them into disturbing situations. One of the more popular students, Brad Hamilton (played by Judge Reinhold), just wants to pay off his car and spice up his love life. He has several jobs throughout the year, most of which are at fast food restaurants, but he is blindsided when his girlfriend breaks up with him, even though he was looking for a way out of the relationship. Brad’s sister, Stacy (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), also has a difficult time figuring out the mores of teen love and receives dubious advice from her ostensibly more worldly friend, Linda (played by Phoebe Cates). Another student is Mark Ratner (played by Brian Backer), who spends a lot of time hanging out with his friend Mike (played by Robert Romanus), a ticket scalper. Mark meets Stacy at the mall, and they hit it off. Comic relief is provided by Jeff Spicoli (played by Sean Penn), a stoner who often causes trouble in the class of his history teacher, Mr. Hand (played by Ray Walston).
“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” works because it grapples with a full range of the challenges of teen life. On the one hand, we get a ribald scene in which one girl teaches another the nuances of performing oral sex, but on the other, we see a caring big brother supporting his sister after she has an abortion.
The cast is strong. Sean Penn is very funny as Jeff. Although he is best known for more serious roles, he proves here that he is just as good at comedy. Another great performance is by Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose character is simultaneously promiscuous and naive.
“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is a highly entertaining movie.