Growing up, I didn’t realize there was an entire subgenre of movies dedicated to reminiscing about high school. I especially didn’t realize that there was an entire subgenre inside that subgenre dedicated to doing drugs and having sex in high school. The former never made sense to me because I didn’t do anything in high school worth reminiscing about, and the latter made even less sense for reasons that are probably obvious at this point.
High school wasn’t very fun for me, but it wasn’t traumatic or amusing either. I was really small, but it wasn’t a big deal. I was picked on, but not enough to complain about. I was smart, but not enough to apply myself. I had a few good teachers and a few good friends. But mostly, high school is a benign, slightly uncomfortable blur now, and like any other arbitrary chunk of my childhood, sort of pointless to define, let alone romanticize, based on what grade I was in. My identity at 16, in contrast to those of Bueller, Spicoli and Dobler, was embryonic, ambiguous and largely uneventful.
I’m a bit fascinated, then, to be introduced to some of the pillars of those genres so many years after I wouldn’t have related to them. There are some fantastic movies in there: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Dazed and Confused, Clueless, and the film I watched for the first time this week, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But instead of reminding me of high school — let alone striking a chord of fond memory — these movies play to me like works of pure fantasy: a world in which high school matters, students are the young, ambitious, naive and pure versions of the adults they will later become and the drama and passion of being 16 is immortalized on film because it actually means something to the rest of the world.
It doesn’t, of course. But to be honest, I like it. I like that these movies exist, because it gives me a vicarious taste of what I never experienced, seen from a perspective that, in the case of Amy Heckerling’s films, has the proper proportion of nostalgia and irony. And Fast Times is a perfect example. Classic rock, muscle cars, cute girls, pot, sex and fast food jobs. I had none of those things in high school (and wouldn’t until literally years later), but it’s entertaining to watch anyway.
Sean Penn is the guy most commonly associated with Fast Times at Ridgemont High these days, and even though his role is relegated to the B-plot, I can see why his character has endured. He’s great. If I didn’t know anything about the rest of his career, I would have assumed he was a talentless stoner they brought in off the beach and paid in Hawaiian shirts and Fritos. He’s so perfectly oblivious it looks like he showed up on set by accident. It’s a pretty impressive turn to be so broad and also so believable, especially in a movie that tends to be more earnest and deliberate in the rest of its scenes. He’s got the lion’s share of the written jokes, too, but some of the funniest stuff in the film comes from his reactions, obviously an organic byproduct of his total dedication to the role.
Besides Penn, the laughs are pretty few and far between at Ridgemont High, which isn’t a detriment to the film at all — it’s just a pretty straight-faced, if light-hearted, story being told. There are some good moments with Ray Walston’s history teacher character, and Judge Reinhold’s no-win job situation makes for some laughs, but mostly it’s a film that focuses on being amiable, taking fond jabs at the student archetypes of the early 80s, and playing around in a world of hopeful, shiftless youths.
The plotlines get a little jumbled at times, and the part of me that pulls for every character to be redeemable (particularly in a story like this one) is a little put out by the decision to deny Robert Romanus’ character redemption, but overall it’s a fun, hectic ensemble film that, like Dazed and Confused, succeeds on its ability to show a big group of characters running around, being kids and living a very uncertain, confusing portion of their lives to the fullest.
So does Fast Times at Ridgemont High hold up? Definitely, in the same way that any time capsule does. This film, and its contemporaries, play now like artifacts from an era that I didn’t experience, and one that may not have existed at all. In that way, they’re like spaghetti Westerns or film noir — they are genres of fantasy that illuminate the beauty, darkness, drama or adventure in their real-world subjects in a way that is more effective than simply documenting it, or in the case of comedy, just writing a bunch of jokes. Maybe there isn’t much to be said, or learned, or laughed at, about high school without first making it a lot cooler than it actually is. Maybe, like a lot of art, exaggeration is the only effective way to tell the truth about it.
I wonder if my high school experience would have been informed or even improved by having seen these ‘80s teen movies when they could have tapped into what I was feeling and doing at the time. Maybe they would have helped me glimpse the appeal and significance in those formative years in a way I never thought to view them. Or maybe I would have valued them less because so much in them would have been foreign to me. Either way, I’m glad to see them now. I may not have had a high school experience worth committing to film, but it’s nice to think that there’s a common thread to be found. Even if we have to create a fantasy world to find it.