Every generation gets the iconic high school movie that they deserve. For the 50's, it was Rebel Without a Cause. For the 70's, it was American Graffiti. Still, the experiencing of growing up and finding your own personality has never felt more contemporary than the Cameron Crowe-penned, Amy Heckerling-directed Fast Times at Ridgemont High. To some critics like Roger Ebert, it was a misguided film that was tonally inconsistent. However, it has persevered not only as a great movie, but one that set off the 80's and onward's trend towards more "realistic" and honest school experiences, where teenagers worked, had awkward relationships, and got extremely high from time to time. It was a movie that was funny as it was sad, and it was all because it treated its characters like the in-betweener adults that they were. 35 years later, it's still hard to not notice at least some of these characters in your high schools across this country. In fact, those who love the film are now the teachers. It may be gnarly and everyone may be on dope, but it's all the better for it.
It's important to set Fast Times in a historical context. The country was in a prosperous time following the tumultuous 70's. People were working again and children were being left unsupervised. It's the element that this film captured so well. Outside of school, there are practically no adults and plenty of room to do questionable behavior. In the confines of being a teenager and trying to figure out your identity, that could be difficult. With the rise of cable TV and an influx of consumerism, malls were the trendy social gathering place where every character went if they weren't in school or in a van getting high. It's a film that deconstructed what was known about high school movies before by allowing a more R-Rated heart to shine through, even allowing such controversial subplots as an abortion.
In some ways, it was menacing to think that these people in low management jobs were far more risque than their James Dean worshiping parents could ever think. At the same time, they were inexperienced, unable to understand themselves in ways that couldn't avoid awkward moments, such as an iconic sex fantasy scene that ends with Phoebe Cates walking in on Judge Reinhold pleasuring himself. It's small moments like this where teenagers felt real. The confrontations were only part of the plot. It was also about trying to be taken seriously, whether that was as a person, a student, a stoner, or a worker. It's frustrating to try and understand the world around them, and kids could be just as dangerous as they are hilarious.
While Sean Penn has since denounced his work as stoner icon Spicolli, there is a charm to having him around. In some ways, he is the classic example of comedy relief. He manages to show up to a traumatic hospital visit and crack jokes. It's not because he doesn't know that the girl next to him fainted, but that he has a morbid fascination. His ongoing conflicts with teachers lead to another great plot that involves him missing part of prom because his grades weren't good enough and has to be tutored by his teacher. The two have had a notorious conflict the entire movie, annoying each other enough within school laws. Considering that Spicolli also destroys someone's car at one point, this stoner is a loose canon and someone who is technically a bad example, but lovable for his youthful world view. He's likely going to fail in life, but for now he's managed to find happiness with dumb philosophies and dreams of being a pro-surfer.
It's a large reason that the film works. It's the final period of youth where innocence begins to fade and reality gets to set in. Some circumstances seem dire just because they are kids, but Cameron knows how to find the humor in every moment. When a customer complains to Reinhold as he works at a fast food place, Reinhold becomes impatient and taunts the customer. It's the wrong thing to do, but having an insecure kid scream "I'll kick 100% of you ass." is a pathetic insult, but a great line of movie dialogue. The film sympathizes with its characters, but recognizes that everyone makes mistakes as well. It also helps that the film has one of the greatest soundtracks of any teen comedy and whose use of Oingo Boingo's "Goodbye Goodbye" may be one of the greatest closing songs to a movie ever.
It may have not been the first film to tackle some of its subjects, but it was the first to feel real in a way that wasn't condescending. There were no grand commentaries on tough subjects. Things just happened, and that's true to life. Later high school films would try to go saccharine (The Breakfast Club) or more risque, but Fast Times at least started by having characters that were true to the real world. Everyone knew these people, and it was far more sincere than anything in the decade to follow. Even the equally acclaimed Dazed and Confused doesn't quite balance everything enough to avoid a nostalgic sheen. Fast Times is a film of its time, but isn't entirely dated by it. The mentalities are still the same and the characters still have taboo events happen to them. It may get dark, but it's only to help prove the point more.
This film has become a rite of passage for young teenagers today, serving as the model for what risque business can be done in a narrative. Most films have topped its grossness, but few have captured its heart. Even the acclaimed Superbad couldn't help but make comparisons to Fast Times in its marketing, suggesting that it was that film for a new generation. While the 2007 film isn't as old, it seems to have faded in public consciousness. It could just be that it was less grounded in familiarity or that its jokes were more in delivery than wording. Still, all of the films that think it can get away with these archetypes owe a debt to Fast Times. It was the film that showed just how funny and real high school could be when people were allowed to act like naive adults. It's only a miracle that half the cast went onto Oscar-winning work (yes, even that "blink and you'll miss it" Nicholas Cage cameo. The fry cook's got skills).