Fast Times at Ridgemont High hit theaters with a bit of a thud in 1982, when a slowly rolled-out release strategy failed to capitalize on the teen comedy box office mania launched the previous spring by Porky’s and carried through that summer by The Last American Virgin.
Fast Times proved to be different than those smash hits, however hilarious they may be (and they are). Screenwriter Cameron Crowe and director Amy Heckerling’s tapestry of Southern California teenage lives was richer, deeper, and more rewarding than the vast bulk of the horny high-schooler romps with which it inevitably got lumped. It also grew in funniness, warmth, and emotion upon repeated viewings.
As such, the timing of Fast Times’ release ultimately proved fortuitous as it quickly became on of the first films to obtain a widespread, devoted cult following on what was then just a burgeoning technology: home video.
Alas, just as it’s hard to convey the revolutionary impact of the VCR to today’s Millennials, it might prove a challenge to get across how meaningful Fast Times at Ridgemont High was in its day—and why, for multiple generations since then, that day will never just surf off into the sunset. Here’s a handy guide. Aloha!
Virginity Was a Disease
Teachers Were Way Uncool
Unlike every previous generation of the past half-century, Millennials respect and appreciate authority, beginning with their parents and extending, early on, to their teachers. Circa 1982, the polar opposite held true for teenagers, so that when perma-stoned surf-dude demigod Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) orders a pizza delivered to history class, it seemed like a triumph for us all.
Underage Drug and Alcohol Consumption Was the Coolest
On the subject of Spicoli, Sean Penn’s brilliant comedic characterizing of the always monumentally wasted wave rider only hammered home what ’80s teens already believed: that getting drunk and stoned was awesome, and that staying drunk and stoned was totally awesome. Millennials tend to disagree.
An Abortion Scene—Even Without the Abortion—Was Shocking
Abortion hardly figured the typical stuff of teen comedies prior to Fast Times. Even thought the scene of the procedure itself was removed from the theatrical cut—and, weirdly, reinstated for the TV version—the mere presentation of a terminated pregnancy was stunning. Even more daring is that Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) comes away fine and obviously better off for having made her choice.
Cars Mattered, Big Time
Studies indicate that many Millennials don’t even get driver’s licenses, let alone care about cars. Again, this separates today’s youth from everybody who grew up from the 1950s onward. Fast Times presents evidence of universal automobile affection in the way Brad (Judge Rheinhold) lovingly washes his 1960 Buick LeSabre “cruising vessel,” and even more so in how Charles Jefferson (Forrest Whitaker) loses his mind over the trashing of his kickass Camaro.
Concussive Football Injuries = Hilarity
Charles Jefferson channels his Camaro rage into a football field frenzy against Ridgemont High’s rival team from Lincoln High. He breaks bones, he crunches organs, and sends one opponent into convulsive medical spasms. All this is played, to high effect, for laughs. A movement exists among Millennials to phase out football as a high school sport over bodily harms such as that which gets inflicted here to great, big, splattery guffaws.
Fast Times Got Afterschool Jobs Right
High school jobs for Millennials most often consist of… no job. Maybe an internship. Then when Millennials do get hired, they want it only on their terms. The students at Ridgemont High, even though they’re suburban and appear on the upper side of middle-class, all have to hustle for spending money. Most of them work at the Ridgemont Mall. Some sling pizza, some tear movie tickets, some peddle concert passes in the video arcade. None of them do it on their own terms, but they all do it with their own style.
Scalpers Gonna Scalp
Whereas Millennials obtain concert and event tickets with one-touch smartphone apps, back in the time of Fast Times, fans relied on scalpers like Mike Damone (Robert Romanus), who doesn’t have so much as a beeper. Instead, Damone peddles Blue Öyster Cult and Cheap Trick tickets by doing on-the-spot sales pitches between Pac-Man machines and at track team practice. Also, Millennials would now decry the term “scalper” as racist and discriminatory against Indigenous Peoples.
The Crazy Quilt Soundtrack
Fast Times’ soundtrack boasts cutting-edge L.A. new wave mixed with aging, laid-back California yacht rockers and flashes of heavy metal. Director Amy Heckerling says that producers forced her to use the classic rock cuts, but as Fast Times was made before MTV solidified as the ’80s national radio station, such a hodgepodge was typical of what teens listened to back then. Nowadays, it’s all customized playlists that many Millennials confuse with “mix tapes.”
The Revolutionary Fact That a Woman Directed Fast Times
Amy Heckerling proved a perfect match for the Fast Times screenplay, written by Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe who, at 22, posed for a high school student for a year and wrote the book on which the movie is based. Heckerling’s Fast Times triumph enabled Martha Coolidge to direct Valley Girl a year later, and both women went on to long, exceptional filmmaking careers.
Amy Heckerling, in fact, also directed the mighty Clueless (1995). The irony now is that one of that comedy masterwork’s classic lines that was intended as a put-down now accurately describes two points of pride among Millennials: “You’re a virgin who can’t drive!”