Fast Times at Ridgemont High launched the careers of director Amy Heckerling (Clueless), writer Cameron Crowe (who went on to direct Say Anything, Singles and Jerry Maguire) as well as actors Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stolz and, in cameos, Nic Cage and Anthony Edwards. It does not suck.
And to think the studio wanted to bury this low-budget high school comedy. Fast Times had no name stars; worse, teen sex was presented as something awkward and uncomfortable. The tone of the movie wasn’t lighthearted in the least, in fact, at times it was downright melancholy.
Which is precisely why the film resonated with high school kids in 1982 and why it continues to resonate with high school kids today. Friendship, school, part-time jobs, sex and all the other grueling aspects of teenage life are not sentimentalized, nor are they portrayed with cynicism, which is nostalgia in and of itself.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a “slice of a year in the life” of six high school students in suburban Southern California. Their lives intersect at Ridgemont High and the local mall where they hold part-time jobs: Stacy (Leigh) and Linda (Cates) work at the pizza joint across from the movie theater where usher Ratner (Brian Backer) chats with Damone (Robert Romanus), a ticket scalper and self-proclaimed ladies man. Stacy’s brother Brad (Reinhold) works at the nearby All-American Burger, a hangout for smoked-out surfer Spicoli (Sean Penn).
Virginal Stacy seeks out sexual advice from the seemingly worldly Linda, who dates an older boy who’s away at college. Linda’s ill guidance sets Stacy on a lonely and painful journey of sexual discovery that culminates in an abortion. Likewise, Rat, enamored by Stacy, is counseled on matters of the heart by Damone, who doles out worse suggestions than Linda and eventually doublecrosses Rat and knocks up Stacy. Brad, in the meantime, ends up wearing a pirate’s costume for a humiliating job at a fish-n-chips hut after he is fired from the All-American Burger. In the same week, Brad gets dumped by the prettiest girl in school (who one-upped him as he was planning to dump her) and is caught masturbating by his sister’s best friend (coincidentally, the subject of his fantasies.)
This is not exactly standard material for a high school comedy. (At least, it wasn’t at the time.) But Fast Times is indeed a riotously funny movie. The humor grows out of pain and confusion. There are gags, mostly coming from Spicoli, but the funniest lines are not jokes at all, but utterances of quiet desperation.
In fact, the film’s heart lies in its smallest details: wisely, Heckerling and Crowe chose not to traffic in the clique cliches of class struggle most teen films rely on. Outside of Spicoli, the characters in Fast Times are unspectacular. They cannot be neatly pigeonholed into popular or unpopular, Brain, Jock, Cheerleader, Band Geek, whatever. They are the students who, like most of us, just took up space in high school. By being as invisible as the majority of teenagers feel, we can identify with them even more than we can the archetypes of teen class warfare.
Then again, deconstructing Fast Times at Ridgemont High seems an unnecessary exercise. The bottom line, Fast Times works because it makes you laugh.