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Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Criterion Collection)
Although Fast Times at Ridgemont High was released more than four years before I was born, it still reminds me of high school. I think that is why Amy Heckerling's film is successful as both a broad, coming-of-age comedy and a relatable drama about teenage emotions. Written by Cameron Crowe, fresh off his stint at Rolling Stone, the film treats its young protagonists without the contempt so many similar films throw their way. Sure, famed movie critic Roger Ebert called the film sexist, but I think Fast Times at Ridgemont High does a better job portraying the actual, awkward situations teenagers face daily, including introductions to sex, drugs, working, and independence, than most of its contemporaries. With a cast of soon-to-be stars, including Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold and Phoebe Cates, and fleeting glimpses of Forest Whitaker and Nicolas Cage, the film is one of the best comedies of the 1980s.
The film lasers in on several students, including Brad Hamilton (Reinhold), a senior working at a burger joint to pay off his Buick LeSabre. Brad decides to ditch his girlfriend for senior year but she beats him to the punch, sending him into a tailspin. Brad's 15-year-old sister Stacy (Leigh) is molded by the more-experienced Linda Barrett (Cates) in the ways of dating and sex, and longs to lose her virginity. Mark Ratner (Brian Backer) is a shy movie-theater usher who models himself on his fast-talking buddy Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) while simultaneously defending Mike's obnoxious personality. On the fringe is Jeff Spicoli (Penn), a surfing stoner who prefers to walk through life shirtless and blissfully unbothered. These kids may not be you in high school, but they are certainly close to representing the near-universal teenage experience in all its awkward, rapidly-evolving glory.
It is easy to call Fast Times at Ridgemont High a comedy, but look below the surface at characters that are actually developed, warts and all. Spicoli may be the most dense, and is certainly the most iconic, character in the film; a walking representation of the kind of dope-hazed burnout parents feared in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when marijuana was king instead of heroin and pills. Penn is hilarious here, particularly when passively sparring with no-nonsense teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) by repeatedly disrupting class by arriving late or ordering pizza. Brad and Stacy speak of parents we never see, and Brad spirals at work as Stacy goes through one unfulfilling sexual encounter after another. A tryst with a 26-year-old stereo salesman emboldens her to make a quick move on Mark after he asks her out, but Mark flees her grasp in inexperienced worry, hurting Stacy's self-esteem. Linda has a "fiancee in Chicago" and talks a big game, but it becomes clear she is a little girl in a red bikini parading around as an adult.
Heckerling's warm direction couples well with Crowe's script. The iconic soundtrack, with cuts from Jackson Browne, Sammy Hagar, Don Henley, Stevie Nicks, The Go-Go's and others, holds up tremendously, and somewhere between all that and Matthew F. Leonetti's cinematography is a film that feels more polished and accomplished than most in the genre. The film also seems timeless. Sure, the frequent scenes at a busy local mall date the picture somewhat, but I watched it from end to end again without thinking about cell phones, Facebook or the fact that these actors were in their 40s when I was in high school. Ebert's criticism feels somewhat off base here, though I will not deny Stacy's journey involves some heady subjects, including the age of consent and abortion. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is funny, too, and it earns its laughs. The characters are genuine and relatable, and the film plays well across several genres. These are lives at a moment in time, and that moment is relatable to many.
The film arrives as part of the Criterion Collection with a transfer that bests previous DVD and Blu-ray releases. The 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image was created from a new 4K scan of the 35mm negative and supervised by Director Heckerling. Previous releases had an inorganic, digital feel, and Criterion completely corrects these flaws, providing a dense, filmic presentation. Fine-object detail is abundant. Close-ups reveal minute details in facial features, on fabrics, and across sets. Wider shots are clear and deep, with nicely resolved grain. Highlights are kept in check, black levels are strong, and shadow detail is plentiful. Colors are bold and nicely saturated, and the film has a pleasingly lifelike quality while in motion. I noticed no issues with noise reduction, edge halos or print damage.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix comes from Universal's 2004 remaster but holds up fantastically. The musical selections are a huge part of this film, and they sound excellent across the board. Each song is weighty and perfectly balanced, with appropriate surround and LFE support. Dialogue is crisp, clean and completely devoid of hiss and distortion. Ambient effects make good use of the surrounds, as do the minimal action effects. English SDH subtitles are included.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release arrives in the type of clear case Criterion frequents and features dual-sided artwork. For some reason, my copy was packed in a two-disc case, leaving an empty spindle for a phantom disc. The included booklet contains an essay, comments from Crowe, stills and information about the transfer. Bonus features include Reliving Our Fast Times at Ridgemont High (39:16/HD), an archival piece that offers interviews with Heckerling, Crowe and cast members and focuses on the film's legacy. Under the "Interviews" tab, you find a Conversation with Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe, a new interview moderated by actress Olivia Wilde, and an Archival Q&A Session with Amy Heckerling (47:42/audio) recorded in 1982. There is also a 1999 Audio Commentary by Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe and The TV Version (1:35:07/HD/Dolby Digital 1.0), a newly available network television version of the film that includes alternate and edited footage.
More than a simple coming-of-age comedy, Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High offers relatable characters and dives into the teenage experience without alienating its subjects. Now released as a part of the Criterion Collection, the film benefits from a remastered transfer, excellent soundtrack, and a limited but interesting slate of bonus content. Highly Recommended.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.