Welcome to Fistful of Features, a celebration of film preservation through physical media and the discussion of cinematic treasures to maintain their relevance in the cultural lexicon. This time we’ll be taking a look at a pop culture milestone coming to the Criterion Collection based on writings from an eager Rolling Stone writer named Cameron Crowe who went as far to go uncover in a high school to get in touch with the pulse of the eighties suburban youth. I’m talking about Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
As cinematographer Matthew Leonetti’s bird’s-eye view swoops through the vibrant lights of Sherman Oaks Mall to the rhythmic echo of “We Got The Beat,” it evokes a place in time that once seemed uniquely alien before the recent nostalgia train drained every ounce of mystique of eighties’ pop culture into current entertainment.
Amy Heckerling’s seminal account of Generation X was an admirable attempt to fuse raunchy comedy and teen melodrama through a pop sensibility and, in some ways, really captured the zeitgeist despite the shortcomings of Cameron Crowe’s suppressed attempt to adapt his own well researched expose.
The saving grace that anchors Fast Times at Ridgemont High from completely derailing into fluff is Jennifer Jason Leigh’s earnest performance as sophomore Stacy Hamilton, a slightly introverted teenager who’s recently become interested in the opposite sex, and her path to social enlightenment which became a timeless rite of passage that many could certainly relate to. The attraction to a jerk like Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) before embracing the romantic feelings towards nice but shy Mark Ratner (Brian Backer) is a primal cycle that is one of the few aspects of Crowe’s screenplay that doesn’t seem watered down in this bubblegum kaleidoscope of pubescent melodrama.
It would be irresponsible not to acknowledge Sean Penn’s methodical dedication to stoner surfer Jeff Spiccoli, though unfortunately his commitment to the character can’t muster anymore dimensions off the page and it isn’t like Penn was in a position at this point to offer a rewrite to allow him more to work with. Crowe clearly has disdain for this character that he writes as a one-dimensional village idiot, yet he still expects the character to illicit empathy when he becomes an intellectual punching bag for his reluctant teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walton).
Perhaps the most disappointing example of shortcomings in character development belongs to high school football star Charles Jefferson, portrayed by a young charismatic Forest Whitaker. Portrayed in this film as an intimidating presence with a glimpse of admirable guidance towards his younger brother, who he wants to take to see Earth, Wind, and Fire, the character ultimately doesn’t serve much of a purpose other than to be the object of derision during the big game against Lincoln. In Crowe’s book, there was much more insight into Jefferson’s family struggles and there was more emphasis on the struggles of casual racism he endured that ultimately led him down a tragic path. If there was enough courage to include that in this film, his arc could have been equally as compelling as Stacy’s.
The lack of narrative focus and aim-to-please direction this project ultimately took robs this film of the potential sincerity it should have had and we should look no further than Richard Linklater’s ultimate teenage hangout film, Dazed and Confused, as an example of how to utilize a non-conventional approach to visual storytelling that results in the tale remaining timeless despite the period it is set in. There are nerves that Fast Times struck upon, but it still ultimately holds back, and it’s blatantly transparent on this recent revisit.
Criterion has included some adequate extras on this release with the highlight being Olivia Wilde’s interview with Heckerling and Crowe. This film was obviously a big inspiration for Booksmart and her enthusiasm in the interview is certainly infectious and the questions she poses do offer some valuable insight into this production.
This will be a must have for fans of this film.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High Special Features
- New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director Amy Heckerling, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- Audio commentary from 1999 featuring Heckerling and screenwriter Cameron Crowe
- Television version of the film from the eighties, featuring deleted and alternate scenes
- New conversation with Heckerling and Crowe, moderated by filmmaker Olivia Wilde
- Reliving Our “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” a 1999 documentary featuring interviews with cast and crew
- Audio discussion from 1982 with Heckerling at the American Film Institute
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by film critic Dana Stevens and, for the Blu-ray edition, a new introduction by Crowe
- New cover by F. Ron Miller
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection beginning May 11th, 2021.