Amy Heckerling’s high school stoner classic isn’t nearly as lightweight as its reputation or cultural footprint would have you believe, but in my opinion that’s part of what makes it so striking and rather unique. The stoner appeal is understandable given Sean Penn’s legendary performance as Spicoli; reminiscent of James Franco’s harmless, adorable pothead in “Pineapple Express,” Penn is a lovable stoned goof without an ounce of malice in him here, and it’s a weirdly affecting, touching performance. The rest of the movie, however, often borders on exploitation: Adapted from Cameron Crowe’s book about his time as an undercover student in a California high school as research for said book, the screenplay is as casually hard-edged as life itself, as the many interconnected high school characters learn often-merciless lessons about both the consequences of one’s choices and the sometimes random unfairness of life itself. Ultimately however, that duality between the two cinematic approaches (i.e. stoner comedy versus lurid early-80s aesthetics including teen nudity, abortion, statutory rape, etc) that gives the movie an undeniable edge. As the movie veers from light and carefree to suddenly – and mercilessly – serious and back again, it captures the emotional experience of those very lessons learned along the way, and in the end it makes “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” an emotionally resonant, unusually intense account of the high school experience.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of 5)