Appreciation for 1980s films is relatively common, even when they haven't aged particularly well. We celebrate a sizable overlay of fromage: tacky hairstyles, thin synth-soundtracks, jean jackets galore, and a general sense of a quainter time. The decade's coming-of-age films also laid on the raunch thickly—to the extent that, if you were a teenager, the raunch itself was often the main reason you were watching. But Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which first saw theatrical release 35 years ago this month, has always been an exception. It stands as one of the best films of all time about growing up, as well as the need to continue that growth throughout one's life.
The story of the film's genesis is pretty well known: Cameron Crowe went undercover at a California high school, published a book about his experience in 1981, and used that book as the basis for the film's screenplay. The plot's built on a trio of narrative strands: There's upperclassmen Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) and Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates) guiding younger friends Mark "Rat" Ratner (Brian Backer) and Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) through affairs of the heart; there's Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold) debating the dissolution of his two-year relationship as he works a series of shitty fast-food jobs; and then there's the stoned misadventures of Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn), a veritable lifestyle icon resembling that quintessentially stoned kid who you probably went to high school with.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a comedy in its essence, but it's of the sobering, instructive kind. In 2005, the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the United States National Film Registry on the basis of its cultural and artistic significance, a testament to the film's emotional and aesthetic heft beyond watching teenagers bone one another while getting fucked up. For most people, their outside world changes more than their inner world does—but not in high school. Fast Times at Ridgemont High excels in showing how we're all in flux at that stage of our lives, while also providing inspiration for how we might gain back some of that malleability in adulthood.
Damone is a character many see in themselves at some point, with braggadocio replacing identity. It's more than present in today's internet culture: people making remarks alone at night that they'd never make aloud to their peers. High school functions a bit this way, when a self-professed cool person like Damone has a charge to mentor, as he does with Mark Ratner. That the film makes you feel as much for the former (maybe more) than the latter is one of its most teachable graces. Damone is a dick, sure—but he comes back from being a dick in the end, and we should all have the requisite courage to admit our versions of this in our own lives after high school.
Maybe it's the souped-up hormones—or the fact that high school provides some of the most intense social situations we face in our lives—that make teenage adolescence a crucial moment for shaping who you'll be in the future. In this respect, Spicoli is something of a savant: Yes, he's a weasel, but he has his own moral code that he adheres to, even when being mocked by the hectoring Mr. Hand and his fellow classmates. There's something big-hearted about the character, and big-hearted people often pay more attention to what's going on around them. He's the kind of soul who could figure things out later in life—but for now, he can settle on being a stoned slacker barely muddling through high school.
Then there's Stacy's tryst with Damone—a soft, confused, and ultimately pained moment that casts a different light than the soft glow that we might associate with teenage romance. It's a true-to-life moment that's less about connection and more about the reclaiming of one's dignity. Stacy eventually breaks free from a miasma of people with their agendas and intentions opposite to hers by finding her own island in Ratner, who's also grown more comfortable with being himself.
Sure, said island might be a temporary destination—that's how it goes when you're that age, along with the belief that the next island will be bigger, and you'll ultimately you'll find the one you belong on. High school might have fucked you up a bit for four years, but if you ever got un-fucked, what you learned in high school might have played a bigger role than you initially thought. Fast Times at Ridgemont High reminds us of that each time we see it: It's a bundle of teenage life lessons that even Mr. Hand would probably dig.