I was living abroad when Fast Times at Ridgemont High was released, so I didn’t see it until a few years later, when I was in my mid- or late-20s. I say this because, had I seen the movie when it first came out, when I myself was fairly close to the character’s ages, I might have had a different reaction, although I doubt it.
As it was, when I saw the movie, while I found parts of it amusing (Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli is a very funny portrayal of a stoner), I basically found it a very depressing portrayal of American teen life. This is a world in which classes are boring, positive adult role models are non-existent, drug use is rife, and teenagers view meaningless, impersonal, porn-inspired sex as an ordinary activity. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s 15-year old character willingly participates in her own statutory rape, and then, without any parental input, has an abortion.
The movie is nihilistic. These are young people without meaning, purpose or values. I therefore found peculiar director Amy Heckerling’s description of her artistic vision for the movie (emphasis mine):
First-time director Amy Heckerling said she was seeking to make a comedy that was less structured than conventional ones, and more like American Graffiti so that “if you woke up and found yourself living in the movie, you’d be happy. I wanted that kind of feel.“
Happy? Wow! I didn’t feel happy after seeing Fast Times. Even though I laughed at some of the humor (much of which is based upon cruelty and embarrassment), I was grateful that my high school years took place in a more innocent time — or, at least, that I was a more innocent high school student.
I’ve mentioned before what a de-aspirational society Hollywood sells our children. Pre-1960s movies might have been foolish and predicated upon a shiny reality unrelated to the lives of many American young people, but those movies still encouraged America’s teens to aim for the stars, both in terms of material success and personal morality. Subsequent teen movies offered instead a bleak vision of a dreary, dead-ended amoral teenage universe.