Upon its release in 1982, no one would have expected Fast Times at Ridgemont High ever to receive the imprimatur of classic. The movie was engineered to make a quick buck at a moment when Hollywood was giddy about its latest easy-money formula: Take some horny teens, put them in a broad, dumb comedy that invited teen boys to ogle bare breasts, and load the soundtrack with hit rock songs. Low-budget movies like Private Lessons (1981), The Last American Virgin (1982), Goin’ All the Way (1982), Private School (1983), Losin’ It (1983), Spring Break (1983), Bachelor Party (1984), and especially Porky’s (1982), which cost almost nothing but earned the equivalent of $320 million in today’s dollars at the North American box office, promised sexcapades in their titles and delivered. Theater managers were often happy to look the other way as underage kids scrambled to get into these R-rated films.
Most of these efforts are too moronic to interest anyone who has weathered the teen-hormone tsunami, but despite its salacious title, Fast Times at Ridgemont High was different: a genuinely thoughtful and well-drawn collection of character portraits that stands on a higher plane than virtually any other teen movie of the era, including The Breakfast Club. Moreover, it concludes with a conservative message about the emotional perils of casual sex. As part of the ongoing TCM Big Screen Classics series, which brings movies most of us know from TV back to multiplexes, Fast Times will screen in theaters on July 30 and August 2 to observe its 35th anniversary. It can also be streamed on HBO.
Unlike The Breakfast Club, a film made by a man in his thirties that flatters its audience by telling teens they’re much smarter than the dopey adults, Fast Times is a dead-on observation of teen failures and foibles based on the reportage of an insider: At 22, Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe (who had missed a lot of high school due to events portrayed in his memoir-film Almost Famous) went undercover by enrolling as a senior at Clairemont High School in San Diego. He turned what he saw into a lightly fictionalized 1981 book and then the screenplay for the 1982 film, directed by Amy Heckerling. Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Linda (Phoebe Cates), Mike Damone (Robert Romanus), Brad (Judge Reinhold), and Mark “the Rat” Ratner (Brian Backer), along with the perpetually at-odds stoner Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) and his nemesis Mr. Hand (Ray Walston), are not a John Hughes formulation of high-school types — they’re anchored in real people Crowe knew. “The Rat,” for instance, was in reality Andy Rathbone, who would write several books in the Windows for Dummies series and many other books about computing. (The onscreen portrayal is a sore spot for Rathbone, but not for the reason you’d think: He claims it was he, and not the Spicoli character, who ordered a pizza in a classroom.)
Fast Times is centrally Stacy’s story: She is the only one who really changes over the course of the movie, and her arc leads to a moral, a conservative one. At the outset, at age 15, she’s intensely curious about sex, which she learns about from discussions with Linda, who is trying to appear more experienced than she is. Stacy deceives her parents (the “Somebody’s Baby” scene when she sneaks out her bedroom window) and has an unfortunate, dispiriting sexual encounter in a baseball dugout with a 26-year-old stereo salesman she barely knows. The experience leaves her emotionally adrift when the young man never calls her again. She feels used. To cover up her wounds, even from herself, she does what many a young woman does these days: She pretends meaningless, no-strings-attached sex is what she wanted in the first place. She desperately seizes a new identity as a slut.
Stacy hurls herself at the shy, nerdy Mark, who has genuine feelings for her and senses it’s far too soon for this step. So he stops her, but she takes this as rejection rather than what it is, which is respect. She then jumps at the nearest available guy, who happens to be Mark’s sleazy friend Mike Damone, who gladly accepts a tryst with her in a changing room. When she learns she is pregnant, Mike is cruel and cold to her, and she undergoes an abortion, which is nerve-wracking and unpleasant in itself and made a doubly humiliating experience when the caddish Mike fails even to show up to give her a ride home. She is forced to share her secret with her brother (the Judge Reinhold character) so he can pick her up at the abortion clinic.
It seems contrary to the spirit of teen-sex comedies, but the heedless promiscuity in Fast Times turns out to have serious consequences. Stacy, chastened by the abortion, stops flinging herself at boys she barely knows. By the end of the film, the audience learns to our great pleasure that Mark and Stacy are happily dating but have put off having sex.
The clear lesson for the young is that meaningless sex is not going to make you happy, especially if you’re a girl, and it would be wiser to put it off until it means something, until genuine intimacy develops between the partners. “Linda, I finally figured it out,” Stacy says. “I don’t want sex. Anyone can have sex. I want a relationship. I want romance.”
Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a teen comedy with a surprisingly important and enduring message, and I’m not just talking about Spicoli’s trenchant take on the American Founding: “What Jefferson was saying was, ‘Hey! You know, we left this England place ’cause it was bogus; so if we don’t get some cool rules ourselves — pronto — we’ll just be bogus, too!’”