The lasting impact of this movie can be summed up in two words. C’mon, say it with me—Jeff Spicoli. Sean Penn’s class-clown stoner dude has become something of an icon, a pre-curser to everyone from Bart Simpson to the Big Lebowski.
(It seems funny to think that such a light-hearted character as Spicoli was portrayed by such an acting heavy-weight as two-time Academy-Award winner Sean Penn. Until one remembers what an acting heavy-weight Sean Penn is. This guy’s good.)
So, apart from Jeff Spicoli, what else was this movie about? Not much, actually. Which is why it meant so much to its audience in 1982.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High is about a group of teenagers who all attend high school together. Like a lot of teenagers, these kids are preoccupied with themselves and with myriad little earthquakes in their social standing. It’s not much by outside standards, perhaps, but it’s everything to them.
The cast is outstanding, including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Vincent Schiavelli. Also featured are Eric Stoltz, Nicolas Cage, Anthony Edwards, and Forest Whitaker. (Some Hollywood trivia: Pamela Springteen, Bruce’s sister, appears in the film as a cheerleader. She was also once engaged to Sean Penn. Small world.)
In addition to high school, the characters are connected by their local mall. Stacy (Leigh) and Linda (Cates) work together, with Brad (Reinhold), Stacy’s brother, in a nearby burger joint. Stacy stresses over her inexperience with sex, a topic Linda professes to know a lot about. Meanwhile, Brad is stressing over his future and his worn-out relationship with Lisa (Amanda Wyss). And ticket scalper Mike Damone (a sleazy/sexy Robert Romanus) thinks of himself as a worldly, guy, respected if not feared.
As all this is happening, Spicoli is getting stoned and feuding with his about-to-explode history teacher Mr. Hand (played by our favorite Martian, Ray Walston). Check out the scene where Spicoli orders a pizza during class, which Mr. Hand cleverly hands out to his favorite students, Spicoli not included. Still funny stuff, more than 20 years later.
The characters are all trying to make sense of who they want to be and how they fit into the social fabric of their local scene. That’s what is, dare I say it, sweet about this movie. Stacy learns that it’s okay to take things slow, and not everyone, including Linda, is as worldly as they might like others to think they are. Stacy also realizes that her brother Brad is a strong, good-hearted guy rather than a total geek. Brad realizes that Stacy could use a little guidance from her big brother, and that he’s actually mature enough to offer it. Spicoli and Mr. Hand find the human-ness in one another. Damone realizes that character is important, and that selling cheap tickets to kids is not the same as being liked and respected by them.
I don’t want to give away too much of how the characters all learn these lessons, because if you haven’t seen the movie you should, and if you have seen it you should see it again. It’s written by Cameron Crowe and directed by Amy Heckerling, two people who have shown real sensitivity to their young characters in subsequent movies (like Almost Famous and Clueless, respectively).
Despite its racy title and sex-and-drug reputation, Fast Times at Ridgemont High does not belong lumped in with the likes of Porky’s and other teen-sex films. It’s more along the lines of The Breakfast Club, actually—a film about real kids dealing with real issues. No matter how inconsequential or self-serving those issues may seem to adults.