On Sex, Feminism And Growing Up With ‘Fast Times At Ridgemont High’
There’s a moment in Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982), when the film — a beloved ’80s classic that helped launch the careers of many young stars of its era — ceases to be just any coming-of-age teen comedy. The instantly quotable lines from class stoner Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn in his first and only likeable role) all slip away. Even the now-iconic pool scene between Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates) and Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold), which helped launch a thousand fantasies and gave a cringe-worthy, fly-on-the-wall view into how the male gaze really operates, becomes just another bit of scenery.
It’s the moment where Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) — the young, sweet and hopelessly naive freshman who takes way too much bad advice from her friend about how to make boys like her — gets an abortion.
In an instant, all the charming hijinks that help make Fast Times a glorious ode to high school debauchery come to a screeching halt. Suddenly this film, which was directed by Amy Heckerling and inspired by a now out-of-print novel by Cameron Crowe, aims at something else. Fast Times is digging at something more than just the sum of its parts.
It was the debut script for Crowe, who up until then had been a reporter for Creem and Rolling Stone (at 15, he’s still the youngest reporter RS has ever had). At 22, he went undercover at Clairemont High School in suburban San Diego. Posing as a student and going by the name Dave Cameron, he chronicled the life and times of the student body there.
Beyond what was likely for him a chance to fill a major personal void — he skipped three grades as a kid and was noticeably younger than the rest of his actual high school class — what Crowe got out of the experience was a story that on film, says more about what it’s actually like to be a teenager than almost any other movie in its genre ever accomplishes. Even celebrated standouts like The Breakfast Club, Heathers and the diet cokeheads-lite version of it, Mean Girls, can’t touch the sincerity that Fast Times exudes. Although the Richard Linklater-directed gem Dazed and Confused comes pretty damn close to emulating it for a different period, it’s missing the one thing that grounds Fast Times in an unforgettable reality: it just doesn’t have the same heart and soul.
The heart and soul really comes from Stacy’s character arc, which is at the center of the film. As 15-year-old Stacy, Leigh is equal parts precocious and clueless, as vulnerable and full of uncertainty as she is assertive and eager to cast all that aside in order to seem grown up, but like, totally yesterday. In short? She comes across like a real teenage girl.
After losing her virginity to a 26-year-old stereo salesman in a baseball dugout (a scene that forever enshrines “Somebody’s Baby” as the sad-sex anthem for the ages), her view of sex becomes more cynical and detached, which in turn makes her more sexually aggressive. We know it’s all happening too fast and that she’s not nearly as ready for this as she’s pretending to be, but that’s the point. For Leigh, who would go on to weave an incredible career out of inhabiting the kinds of damaged but growling women that society often doesn’t want to think about in films like Dolores Claiborne, Last Exit to Brooklyn and even the made-for-cable adaptation of Bastard out of Carolina, it’s a real tour-de-force performance you don’t initially see coming.
While you could argue that Stacy’s pregnancy and subsequent abortion represent a kind of heavy conservative moralizing that’s hard to ignore — she has casual sex and then gets punished for it by getting pregnant, then ditched at an abortion clinic by Mike Damone (Robert Romanus), a dude who never cared much about her in the first place — it’s also not difficult to see that regardless of how it gets there or why it does, Fast Times delivers a watershed depiction of abortion.
In the film, abortion is neither evil nor sensationalized, but fundamentally regarded as a woman’s choice, and one which her partner (no matter how equally young and dumb he may be) still shares responsibility for. When Damone ghosts Stacy and doesn’t live up to his obligations, he ends up paying for it, and he almost loses his friendship with dorky but kind-hearted Mark Ratner (Brian Backer), who we know Stacy should have been with all along.
In Fast Times, the abortion also helps to drive home the point that the party can’t and won’t last forever. High school ends, the people who made it seem memorable and truly incredible will probably be strangers in the years to come, and every action can cause a reaction that has the potential to transform life as we know it forever. It’s a bittersweet thread that runs through the entirety of the film, and if you tug on it, you can see how all these pieces do link together in the same common thruline.
High school can and should be the time of your life, which Fast Times proves over and over again, but behind every set of rose-colored lenses, real life is still happening — and in some cases, those are the parts worth really holding onto.
(Note: This piece was originally published on the Brattle Film Notes blog in July 2017.)