Fast Times at Ridgemont High is now available to rent, stream or buy on Criterion Collection Blu-ray.
The 1970s and early 1980s would see a new subgenre of films emerge. These films placed heterosexual male teenage life centre stage in sex-orientated comedies that would earn the label ‘teensploitation.’ This new subgenre may have begun with Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) and Animal House (1976), but it was the early 80s that saw its march forward with Porky’s (1981), Private Lessons (1981) and more. On its release in 200 American theatres in 1982, Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High would initially find itself also labelled a teensploitation sex comedy. However, as audiences were about to discover, that label could not have been further from the truth as while Fast Times was indeed a classic teen comedy, it was far from the realms of Porky’s male-dominated teensploitation.
While the 1970s had seen many movies push the boundaries of adolescent sex and desire on screen, very few had delved into serious themes of abortion, first sex, messy teenage experiences, masturbation and teenage fantasy. In Porky’s, Private Lessons and Animal House, the target male audience were encouraged to laugh and giggle through a haze of breasts, stereotypes and sexual innuendos. But Fast Times would take adolescent sex out of the male teensploitation gutter and place realism centre stage. In Fast Times, there is no judgment or over-arching moral message and no exploitation of sexuality for simple laughs. Instead, we are offered a movie that feels like it was made by teens for teens, as the complexities of male and female sexuality are given equal air time. There is no exploitation here, just an honest portrayal of teen sex, friendships, relationships, disappointment and confusion.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High was the birth of a new coming-of-age template that placed teenage voices and experiences centre stage while reflecting a changing 1980s youth culture. It was the beginning of the 1980s teen movie, the inspiration for the John Hughes pictures to come, and the spark that would light a cinematic revolution. Fast Times at Ridgemont High marked the birth of the modern American teen comedy/drama and would go on to inspire movies ranging from Pretty in Pink to The Breakfast Club, Booksmart and even Licorice Pizza. Rather than opting for pure comedy, Fast Times would lace its humour with the dramatic realism of classic coming-of-age pictures ranging from The Last Picture Show to A Swedish Love Story.
As I watched Fast Times for the first time on VHS as a teen, the experience was nothing short of a revelation. It was the first teen comedy/drama I had seen that captured the reality and humour of adolescent life without adult judgement. It captured the speed and urgency of growing up and the need to try and define your place and purpose in a confusing world. Here teenagers worked at weekends, just like I did, their first steps into the adult world wrapped in a confusing void between being treated as a child at school and an adult at work. Every character was an individual with their own unique story, every scene rooted in the dramas of teenage life and the realities of the adolescent experience. This group of kids were just trying to make their way through adolescence with as few scars as possible.
Heckerling and Crowe would, of course, go on to make a range of coming-of-age classics. Crowe would bring us Say Anything… and the outstanding Almost Famous, while Heckerling’s iconic Clueless has become a cult classic. But Fast Times at Ridgemont High will forever be the pinnacle of Crowe and Heckerling’s careers. Fast Times would create a new teen comedy template that embodied the realities of adolescence and dared to reflect the subjects every teenager keenly discussed in private. It would reflect the blind optimism of youth and the changing 80s experience while never shying away from the pitfalls and anxieties of growing up fast in a changing world.