Fast Times at Ridgemont High is not a movie. It’s a character study.
The film counts five main characters, all high schoolers, and the plot (if you could call it that) unfolds over the course of one school year. Everybody is trying to get laid. Everybody is trying to meet someone.
As a portrayal of high school kids and high school life, the film is awesome. And although it was released in 1982, the motivations of the characters – while exaggerated (was everyone only concerned with sex?) – their social lives, and even the school scenes themselves rang true. In fact, there may not be a classroom scene better than when Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) orders pizza to his desk.
But that’s all this movie is. A collection of scenes and vignettes without an overarching or satisfying narrative. The two top billed parts build to nothing: Brad (Judge Reinhold), the popular kid, goes from working at a burger joint to managing a convenience store; Spicoli (Penn) drops some immensely quotable and memorable lines in between tokes.
Rather, the heart of this movie lies in a love-triangle between Mike (Robert Romanus), Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and Mark (Brian Backer). Stacy wants to have sex, and when Mark – who actually likes her – isn’t ready, she turns to Mike to satisfy that need. Only, Mike gets her pregnant, can’t afford the abortion, and ends up getting arrested for scalping Ozzy Osborne tickets and working at a 7-11, or so the end credits tell us.
Stacy, on the other hand, has her abortion and reevaluates things. She doesn’t want meaningless sex. She wants a relationship. So does Mark. He just doesn’t want the sex.
The abortion storyline plays a bit out of place in an otherwise goofy movie, but it serves as a reminder for the costs of unprotected sex. It’s also the closest thing we get to any kind of emotional stakes, though the aftermath of the decision makes the whole sequence feel cheap. It’s a large decision, and yet the film plays it small: Stacy asks Brad to drop her off at a bowling alley, but he catches her running across the street to the clinic. He’s there waiting for her when she comes out, an awkward moment. “Since when do you go bowling?” he asks.
That moment is part and parcel of the film as a whole: real, meaningful things do happen to high school kids – but it’s an uncomfortable, confusing time. Conflicts aren’t handled well, accidents happen, lessons aren’t learned. Fast Times doesn’t suggest at any point it will offer any deep insight into its subjects. Rather, it offers as much truth as it knows.
As Jeff Spicoli says at the end of the film: “All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine.”
Shit, maybe it’s that easy.