If you’re anything like me, there are two first times you saw certain movies: when you watched it on cable T.V. on a Saturday afternoon, and when you saw the actual movie. Such was my experience with Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which celebrates its fortieth anniversary on August 13th. I’m not sure how often that happens for teenagers now; with the advent of streaming, kids these days are both spoiled for choice and culturally jaded because of it. Phoebe Cates’s topless scene once had the prurient power of whisper network lore, but in this social media saturated age, something as analog as Fast Times – with its theaters with smoking sections and $20 Van Halen tickets – might seem a bit quaint. And yet there’s still a pleasurable sense of discovery in revisiting a film that provided the blueprint for so many that followed it in all its unexpurgated glory. After all, as anyone who’s lived through it knows, high school has always been an R-rated experience.
The Fast Times origin story could have been plucked straight from the plot of a cheap Reagan-era sex comedy: Rolling Stone journalist Cameron Crowe spent a year undercover at a Southern California high school and wrote a book about what he observed there, later adapting it into a script. The film maintains the book’s sociological, ground-level view of American adolescence, with all the attendant crude language and sexual obsessions. The old guard at Universal reportedly hated the picture; producer Art Linson once claimed that studio head Robert Rehme walked out of the first screening before it ended. Roger Ebert called it a “scuz-pit of a movie” in his review. It was initially dumped in less than 500 West Coast theaters but it soon became a word-of-mouth success, eventually earning more than six times its budget and becoming an even bigger hit on home video.
While the references to Sanka and girls cultivating “the Pat Benetar look” will likely fly over the heads of anyone born after 1990, what remains refreshing about Fast Times is its low stakes. There is no plot to speak of, nor are they any antagonists, at least in the conventional sense. There are also, aside from a handful of teachers and bosses, no adults around. This was deliberate on Heckerling’s part: American Graffiti was one of her touchstones, and she sought to structure her film so that “if you woke up and found yourself living in the movie, you’d be happy.” Like Graffiti, the only imposed parameter is one of time, following a group of students across the course of one school year as they stumble through bad jobs, awkward encounters, and last dances, which gives Fast Times a freedom of movement that many modern, more schematic teen comedies are sorely lacking.
Fast Times was a career launcher for many of its young stars: Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, and Nicolas “Coppola” Cage all make appearances (though meme-hungry Gen Z’ers will be disappointed by the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nature of his role.) While the passage of time is completely normal and expected, there’s something surreal about the fact that they are now in their fifties and sixties. Still, one can see the early promise of, say, Sean Penn’s later intensity in his capricious take on stoner Jeff Spicoli. And then there’s baby-faced Jennifer Jason Leigh’s superlative work as naive sophomore Stacy Hamilton, whose own ideas of romance are muddled by the guidance of her older, more worldly-seeming friend Linda (Cates). Stacy has a male counterpart, and potential love interest, in nerdy Mark Ratner (Brian Backer), who is the unwitting recipient of proto-PUA advice from his friend Mike Damone (Robert Romanus). But it’s Stacy’s halting, occasionally painful, initiation into the shifting sands of male attention that proves to be the film’s most affecting plotline.
The best teen films have something new to show us at every age. While it wouldn’t be quite right to call Stacy’s story aspirational, certainly many younger viewers will recognize her desires, and confusion over how to fulfill them, as their own. Soon enough, though, the strategic use of Jackson Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby” might start to sound less dreamy and more ironic, even cautionary. Heckerling carefully attunes us to the unsavory aspects of Stacy’s loss of virginity at the Point to a much older guy, gradually intercutting the amorous action with shots of the “Surf Nazi” graffiti adorning the walls. Yet, crucially, Stacy doesn’t regret the act itself, only its aftermath. While the nudity in some of the film’s scenes has a cheesecake quality, Heckerling is thoughtful about how such self-exposure can be vulnerable as well. When Damone and Stacy take off their clothes in her parent’s poolhouse, the camera observes them with the same reticence they do one another. And then, of course, there’s the abortion, the treatment of which still feels radical in its insistence on not judging Stacy for her decision. It’s something she needs and she gets it; any moral condemnation is reserved for Damone, who fails to pay for his half of the procedure and take Stacy to the clinic like he promised. It’s as close to villainy as a character gets in Fast Times, and even he is forgiven eventually.
It’s this willingness to let kids be kids that might be Fast Times’s most lasting contribution to its genre, and what’s kept it so rewatchable over the ensuing decades. It’s the assurance that the mistakes we make when we’re young don’t have to follow us around all our lives, or even into the next school year. It’s a lesson that remains worth learning, even for teens whose modern vocabulary includes terms like “revenge porn” and “active shooter,” whose lives are complicated beyond what anyone in 1982 could have imagined. But there are still Mr. Hands who will let us squeak by his class. We can still find someone nice to date who won’t need to go all the way. But if you do happen to save Brooke Shields from drowning, try not to blow all your reward money in one place.