Cameron Crowe's teen flick smoked the box office competition

By Caroline Kepnes
Updated September 05, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Fast Times at Ridgemont High: Photofest

Cameron Crowe wasn’t old enough to drive when Rolling Stone sent him on the road with the Allman Brothers (Crowe’s most recent film — ”Almost Famous” — was based loosely on that experience), but the story that would turn the young journalist into a filmmaker came six years later. At 22, Crowe aspired to tell a story about teens, from the inside out. Throwing himself into the leg-warmer-ridden hallways of San Diego’s Clairemont High School, he audited classes, mingled with mall rats, and eventually emerged with a tale that a generation seized as its own. ”Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” directed by young upstart Amy Heckerling and released on Sept. 3, 1982, unleashed a flood of copycat teen movies, but none surpassed the original.

”Fast Times”’ spot-on portrayal of school life left no teen crisis — or archetype — unexplored. There was Ratner, the nebbishy pushover, and Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the naïf who wanted sooo badly to be somebody’s baby. And there was the guy whom The New York Times dubbed a ”scene stealer” — Sean Penn, whose turn as Jeff Spicoli, the surfer with a heart of hash, would launch his career.

Stealing scenes in ”Fast Times” was a coup, given a cast that also included then virtual unknowns Anthony Edwards, Forest Whitaker, Judge Reinhold, Eric Stoltz, and Nicolas Cage. ”Jennifer and I met on that movie, and we’re still good friends,” says Phoebe Cates, who made a splash as ”Fast Times”’ carrot-pleasuring girl next door. ”For a decade, I got carrots sent to my table wherever I ate. ‘Fast Times’ really stuck with people.”

”Stuck with” might be an understatement. The film wildly surpassed Universal Pictures’ expectations and pulled in $38.4 million at the box office. Critics lauded the largely plotless movie, which, in ’86, inspired a half-hour sitcom on CBS — minus most of the original cast — that lasted, well, about a half hour.

So, dude, why all the fuss? Most of today’s teen movies, too wry to bother with real emotion, are built around you’re-not-gonna-believe-it scenes (a certain apple pie comes to mind). ”Fast Times,” which had one of its characters go through an abortion, wasn’t played just for comedy. And that made laughing out loud at Spicoli’s rendition of American history all the more necessary. In 1982, one of the film’s producers, Irving Azoff, said this of teens: ”Time goes by so fast for kids today…much [faster] than in the past.” If, in 2001, a writer tried to slip into the tattoo-ridden hallways of an American high school, today’s too-savvy teens would probably see right through him. Which is why we’re grateful that Crowe pulled it off in slower, ”Fast”-er times.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

  • Movie
  • R
  • 90 minutes
  • Amy Heckerling