Fast Times at Ridgemont High * directed by Amy Heckerling, 1982
by Nicole Frantz
Brooklyn, New York
It was the early '80s and I was cruising up the concrete ramps of the mall's garage in the backseat of my best friend's sister's Camaro, with the pylons of the massive structure reaching up to the sky like Oz, and all of the possibilities of adulthood just through those double-glass doors. Everything I needed to survive--food, clothing, and shelter--were all available to me inside, and it gave me the chance to pretend, for a few brief hours anyway, that in some small way I could be in charge of my own destiny. The mall was the ultimate self-contained universe of adolescence. It was
Even though I am all grown-up now and look back at that time in my life with a mixture of romantic nostalgia and a cringing dread, I was curious enough to attend a one-night showing of Fast Times at Ridgemont High at Radio City Music Hall. It wasn't as if I hadn't seen the movie a million times on TV and video, but the chance to go back to the big screen, to the place where its impact was first felt 15 years before, to suspend reality for a brief time and immerse myself in an almost hypnotic regression to my youth, brought me to ask the question, could we go back? And if we could, what would we find?
My worst fear was that one of the quintessential, anthemic movies of my youth, would stand as nothing more than a fashionable moment of nostalgia (after all, who is going to see Pat Benatar's new tour?), a Ron Johnson-esque "Memories of You" to the girl I once was--and to a movie that I once believed offered the truth of what it meant to be 15 in one lunchroom scene over a carrot. The '90s had deflated my biggest and loftiest idols of the '80s and had begun to resurrect them in caricature-like fashion; could I subject Fast Times . . . to the same scrutiny? Would I lose all of Ridgemont High, too?
It is through those same double-glass doors that filled me with hope for the future that we, the audience, enter the world of Ridgemont. Fast Times . . . opens onto the same food court, the same stores, the same glistening, maze-like walkways that charted me through the murky waters of my adolescence. Just like me, Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) was searching for an identity, a new and improved girl to pattern herself after, the experiences that would make her an adult, and where better to find all that than at the consolidated consumerist mecca of the shopping galleria?
The girl she sets her sights on is Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates), who epitomized the mall. Her look and image--sleek, cool, fresh, and knowing--was a construction meant to fulfill some sort of promise of adulthood, of older men, of sexual fantasy, but ultimately was only a grand façade meant to mask her own feelings of fear and insecurity about growing up. Linda had taken everything that the mall had to offer and, like me, still made it out in time. Linda was Stacy's spiritual guide through the angst of adolescence and blow jobs, and in another brilliant truth of youth, she was just as inexperienced as Stacy. Her story of the older boyfriend is almost believable, but perhaps she might have made him something other than an aspiring flight attendant.
Really, we were all just looking for some way to make it out of that difficult period in our lives. Fast Times . . . was just about making it out of Ridgemont High as painlessly as possible. Linda hoped to avoid all the angst through her alleged "love affair." Stacy thought she might find that escape in the mall, in the dugout with Ron Johnson, or in the poolhouse with Mike Damone (Robert Romanus). Damone hoped to cash in on the arena rock phenomenon of the '80s to gain recognition in a world where he would otherwise have none. And even though Damone was branded as the film's bad guy, he too was just a victim of big dreams and harsh realities, of sexual longings and premature ejaculation, of the truth and consequences that come with age. Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold) sought the allure of a sleek ride and hurried towards adult responsibility, trying to find the man behind the fast-food counter, until he realized that being the man did not mean donning a pirate's attire in a fish-fry restaurant, but meant supporting his sister when she needed it most.
And then there was Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn)--the shining star of the film and the superhero of Ridgemont, whose advice we all could have used to get us through that time in our lives. He challenged the (mostly adult) ideas that made no sense to him, particularly Mr. Hand's ideas. All Jeff Spicoli sought out of life--"tasty waves" and a "cool buzz"--could have negated the whole dilemma of the '80s, and adolescence in general. He knew that the world awaiting him was really no better than he had it in high school. The pleasures that he found in life were simple ones. And he used his keen powers to turn Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) from a cynical high school teacher back into the tough but loving instructor that cares about what happens to these kids. The relationship between Spicoli and Mr. Hand provides us relief from the painful moments in the film, because we know that they are helping one another along. Besides, didn't we all know a Jeff Spicoli? And didn't he make our adolescence better for his mere presence in the parking lot every morning? If we look back, don't we find ourselves wishing that we could have relaxed a little more and enjoyed the ride like Spicoli, and others like him, did?
Throughout the film, the characters exist on either side of the thin line between adolescence and adulthood. It is always a tightrope that has devastating lessons for some, not-so-awful consequences for others, but in the world of Ridgemont, one takes comfort in the fact that everyone will be okay. Even Stacy, who by far suffers the most for her precociousness, finds her place by the film's end. When I go back to Ridgemont, I remember what it was like to live in such a self-contained world: always looking beyond to find something better, and mostly finding the disappointments that come with the reality. In 15 years, that can't have changed too much. Though kids today may have somewhere other than the mall to hang out, some other place that offers the same promise of freedom that supposedly comes with being a grown-up, they are still negotiating that line. Kids are still trying to grow up too fast in a world that will make them grow up too fast anyway. But, in the world of Ridgemont, we can take comfort in the fact that everyone finds what they deserve in the end. If only my adolescence had wrapped up that conveniently . . .