It feels like every decade, there’s a really naturalistic, “slice-of-life” high school movie with an ensemble cast that shows a generalization of a particular era of high school; examples include American Graffiti, in 1973 and Dazed and Confused, in 1993. These films tend to have a number of requisite elements; stoners, of course; a first romance between a shy girl and awkward boy; hard-ass teachers who lecture their students for skipping class; and lots and lots of era specific music.
1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High checks almost all of the boxes that come with this genre of film. While the script by Cameron Crowe isn’t incredibly memorable, the film is overall well-executed thanks to a few key performances (Jennifer Jason Leigh (the picture of teenage innocence as romantic lead Stacy Hamilton), Judge Reinhold (her ever-exasperated, but always reliable, big brother, Brad Hamilton), as well as a number of well-cast supporting roles including Forest Whitaker as a local football star, and Ray Walston as crotchety old teacher Mr. Hand, who feuds with memorable stoner Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn).
Where American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused take place over the course of one memorable evening (the last day of summer; the last day of the school year), Fast Times is a bit more meandering, taking place over the course of an entire school year. As a result, Fast Times has a bit of a broader scope, but loses the “in-the-moment” feeling of those other films.
The film is overly reliant on its 1980s musical cues, which is unsurprising for a film in which Cameron Crowe is involved; thankfully, most of the cues aren’t overly on-the-nose, though some get awfully close. On the other hand, a suggestion that any make-out session is best accompanied by the songs of Led Zeppelin leads to a great comical moment.
Overall, Fast Times feels about like what you’d expect for a movie of it’s ilk; while there’s not much to elevate it beyond the genre (as is the case for Dazed and Confused), it’s a competently made film in a tough genre. While much of the film may not have aged well, it remains a very relatable film for high schoolers even today.