Absolutely ’80s: ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ Review

Posted in Screening Room by - August 06, 2016
Absolutely ’80s: ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ Review

It’s finally August, and that means it’s time for Nicholas Cage Month here at Kulture Shocked! Yes, this was my brilliant idea, and I’m happy to take credit, as this theme is so much fun for two reasons: first, our actor in question is just such a delightfully strange character that even his worst roles are at least entertaining for the time; and secondly, because I knew how much it was going to annoy Chris and the rest of the team (never let it be said we don’t like to have fun here)! So in our first week’s trek into Mr. Cage’s filmography, we go all the way back before he donned the now-legendary moniker and was just billed as Nicholas Coppola: Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Set in a bright and poppy 1980s California, Fast Times follows a group of high schoolers’ misadventures through a single year. The classic coming-of-age tales involving love, sex, part-time jobs and just finding your true self all coalesce in the interweaving of these seemingly ordinary teenagers’ lives.

Only having seen this film for the first time to write this review puts me in a strange headspace. Released in 1982, Fast Times has quite the timestamp on it, in both aesthetic and story. It starts off simply enough, with nerdy teen Mark “Rat” Ratner (Brian Backer) looking for love while the object of his affection, Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), propels herself into womanhood at the urging of her best friend, Linda (Phoebe Cates). You’d think it’s a simple “geek gets the girl” setup, but the plot seems none too impressed with your ideas of “structure” or “genre,” man. No, because between this (arguably) main plot, we have complications with Mark’s best friend, Mike Damone (Robert Romanus), Stacy’s older brother, Brad (Judge Reinhold), struggling to find his place in the working world, and a building confrontation between school stoner, Jeff Spicoli (a young and now-legendary turn from Sean Penn), and grizzled history teacher, Mr. Hand (Ray Walston). Each of these little striking points and several other lesser-plots pops in and out, with each being given the same level of gravitas – little to none.

This is what makes Fast Times so difficult to review – it sits in a strange subspace between basically being about nothing, but also being a highly influential film. I’m sure back in the day, the mere idea of focusing on the daily life of the average overwhelmed high schooler was novel, what with the pressures of class, work, parties, relationships, and the like, but the lineage which this movie spawned has all but drown it out. I can see where it would have been profound and new upon its original release, but seeing the film almost twenty-five years late makes it come off with that terrible feeling of forced “edginess” – that biting sensation that a scene has tits or swearing or violence just to try and make you uncomfortable, make you feel out of place. The fact that all of this is so standard now just makes these pushes ring hollow and, honestly, pretty crass. Seeing Brad whack it to a fantasy of Linda is pretty gross, given the context of both the characters’ ages and the future plot turns later in the film. Maybe that’s what they intended, but it’s a little too on-the-nose for my tastes right now.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High isn’t bad, it just doesn’t have much left to say now that everyone else has jumped on its bandwagon. It’s very well acted (Romanus is a show-stealer, if not for Penn’s surprising turn as the perpetually-blitzed Spicoli), it’s got a good script, and it feels authentic to the world it’s trying to recreate. The soundtrack is sticky pop garbage, but that’s perfect for the time and age it’s shooting to evoke. But the real travesty (at least for this review) is the complete underuse of Nicholas Cage. He’s just labeled as “Brad’s Bud,” and doesn’t even have a single line, as far as I can recall! I’m pretty sure I just saw him in the background of a pan across the fryers in the burger joint and had just enough time to say, “There he is!” before the shot moved on, never to bring him back again.

Much like last week’s review, Fast Times sits in that awkward place where I can’t condense my feelings down to a “Watch/Don’t Watch” mentality – you need a full review’s space to think things through. It’s not a bad film – in fact, it’s probably a great movie – but it’s a story I’ve seen all too often, I’m too tired of already, and it just came at the wrong time in my life. If you’re on the fence about crossing it off your To-See List, watch it. Unless, of course, you’ve seen any movies like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Juno, or any of a million different TV show episodes that focus on “the real life” of a teenager. It may be the progenitor of many of these, but in the last two-and-a-half decades, the formula’s already been perfected far past the limits of the original.

Caginess Factor: Minimal


This post was written by
He is a Nebraska native and UNL Honors alum with an ever-relevant degree in English. When he isn’t working his day job or writing for Kulture Shocked, Ben spends his time as an independent game designer, seeking to publish his first board game. You can also find him modeling for art classes around Lincoln or online as Dlark17 on most major gaming platforms.
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