By now, a lot of us are already familiar with Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the 1982 cult screen gem directed by Amy Heckerling and written by Cameron Crowe (based on his book about his stint as an undercover student in a Southern California high school in the early ’80s). But most of us have probably never heard of Keva Rosenfeld’s hour-long documentary All American High, a look at the Torrance High senior class of 1984 through the eyes of a Finnish foreign exchange student named Rikki. Both films have a lot in common: they’re both studies of SoCal teen life that deal with real issues. But unlike Fast Times at Ridgemont High, All American High hasn’t been seen in 25 years — until now.
While foreign-exchange student Rikki navigates a high school full of mostly white kids, she remarks how many of the subjects “are more like hobbies.” There are classes such as auto-repair, surfing, childcare, a “Young Decorator” class that basically primes the women to become good wives through cheerful, color-coordinated homemaking; and “Modern Lifestyles,” which focuses on relationships and establishing families, complete with mock weddings all the way through to mock divorces.
It’s as though Torrance High were a microcosm for the real (albeit teen) world, complete with the Torrance High Electronics Club, which is actually a classroom that’s been transformed into a makeshift arcade with fully functional pinball and video game machines, open during breaks and lunch.
Rikki also observes the visible rifts between cliques, with different forms of popularity based on looks, sense of humor, and school spirit, diving head-first into a world of kegger house parties and lavish school spectacles, including a homecoming party inside what was, at the time, the world’s biggest mall.
But amid all the note-passing, football games, and government classes that turn into lengthy discussions about nuclear disarmament (which are obviously based on parental-inherited bipartisan politics), Rikki quips that it’s all “a big play,” and she’s right.
Looking back at All American High nearly 30 years after it was filmed, many of the foreigner’s observances echo our own — the inexorable ties between school and social life; the carefree consumer culture so focused on the mall — it’s all just as “foreign” to us as viewers as it is to the exchange student in the film.
Director Keva Rosenfeld says, “I ended up focusing on Rikki because I thought her perspective on all things American was unusual and charming. There was an innocence and intelligence to her, so I went with it. Much of making a documentary, or at least [this] documentary, was guided by instinct. And I somehow had this instinct that she’d be a refreshing guide into this world. I was really glad she was so game.”
Amy Heckerling and Keva Rosenfeld both participate in a Q&A following a Back-to-School Double Feature of their films at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre on Saturday, August 17 at 7:30pm.