When Fast Times at Ridgemont High came out, in the summer of 1982, I was almost exactly the same age as Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Stacy Hamilton, getting ready to start my sophomore year in high school. Like Stacy’s world-weary older brother, Brad (Judge Reinhold), I was working at a fast-food joint that required a humiliating nautical-themed uniform. And like all the kids in director Amy Heckerling’s tender, funny, sometimes painfully well-observed comedy of teenage manners, I spent most of my spare time in one of several sprawling suburban malls, because where else was a high schooler in the early eighties supposed to go?
The year 1982 was the dawn of a new golden age of what were then referred to, with some derision, as “teen exploitation movies.” The smash hit Porky’s had come out just the year before and would be followed by a profitable sequel the year after, while the more genteel, less sexually frank John Hughes high-school comedies were still a couple of years in the future. Fast Times is not really of a kind with Porky’s, though: Heckerling’s keen sociological snapshot of teen culture and gender politics at a Southern California high school—the work of an American Film Institute graduate who, directing her first feature at age twenty-seven, was not that much older than the teenagers whose lives she was chronicling—has little if anything to do with Bob Clark’s nostalgia-driven look back at his own 1950s adolescence, about a pack of sex-starved high-school boys. And Heckerling’s screenwriter and close collaborator, Cameron Crowe, was even closer to the protagonists’ world; at the age of twenty-two, he had spent a year living undercover as a student at a San Diego high school to research the best-selling novel that became the basis for his script. Plus, of course, Heckerling was a female filmmaker, at a time when such a creature was vanishingly rare—a variable that is far from the only reason for Fast Times’ specialness but can hardly be separated from it.