A couple of years ago someone posted the following summation of “Every White Teen Movie Ever” on Tumblr:
ELIZABETH (In that one white girl voice): Hi. My name’s Elizabeth. I’m not like those other girls. Oh no, I’m not plastic, or goth, or some blonde bimbo. I’m… just Elizabeth.
SWISH PAN TO SOME AVERAGE LOOKING WHITE BOY
ELIZABETH (Continued): And that’s Jake. He’s sooo hot. How does one describe the level of hotness of the great Jake Smith. He’s like if you combined (insert current hot rock artist) and (insert current hot white actor).
QUICK CUT TO IMAGES CURRENT HOT WHITE ROCK ARTIST AND HOT WHITE ACTOR
ELIZABETH (Continued): But I’m…just Elizabeth…and this is my story.
WE HEAR THE SOUND OF A SCHOOL BELL RINGING WHILE “DIRTY LITTLE SECRET” BY ALL AMERICAN REJECTS PLAYS OVER THE OPENING MONTAGE AND CREDITS.
While this meme is pretty funny, it’s not accurate when it comes to all teen movies. Now, I have a deep like for the teen movie genre. It seems when high school BS drama movies (or TV shows) bubble up, I like to watch them because, I suppose, they seem to be my go-to soap opera of choice. And while John Hughes was able to milk almost an entire decade’s worth of teen drama in the ’80s, “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” had flourishes of more authentic high school experiences than anything Hughes brought to the screen. That’s due in large part to Cameron Crowe’s book of the same name that served as the source material. Crowe wrote “Fast Times” by going undercover as a student at Clairemont High School in San Diego in 1979. There he found a group of high school students who seemed to have three passions in life: sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. While the book and movie characters were mostly composites (and exaggerations) of students at Clairemont High School, “Fast Times” the film served as a kind of template for teen movies for most of the decade — with sex, casual drug use, and soundtracks filled with songs from the most popular bands peppering almost every film that came after it.
The first person “Elizabeth” narrative of the outsider who has a crush on some popular guy or girl came later, but with “Fast Times” what struck me was that fact that most of the characters had part-time jobs while attending high school. Indeed, the first images we see in the film is not the high school where the some of the story takes place, but rather a mall where most of the students work. Nowadays, it seems we don’t see teens working at minimum wage jobs, but in “Fast Times” we do. As a point of comparison, many of my friends in high school worked — and in some of the jobs depicted in the film. Food courts, movie theaters, clothing stores…all these places were where teens could earn their own money to spend on records, concerts, drugs, dates, or car payments.
A lot of that changes as teen movies progress into the ’90s with “Clueless” — spawning another template where most of the main characters do not work for their money. Rather, they seem to have expense accounts where money is just…there. Rich parents provide the economic bedrock — and the teens provide the drama free of the necessity of having to make a buck because mom and dad won’t or don’t help. With “Fast Times” a job seems to be a sense of pride for most of the characters — except for Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn). When Brad (Judge Reinhold) asks, “Why don’t you get a job, Spicoli?” He answers:
SPICOLI: What for?
BRAD: You need money.
SPICOLI: All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine.
Spicoli is a free spirit who will stumble through life looking for things that give him pleasure, while the rest of the students at Ridgemont High are destined to take their place in world of work, careers, family, mortgages, and all the other trappings of middle-class life. And while Spicoli is portrayed as a lovable surfing stoner who will probably amount to very little, his attitude toward life is not that much different from the wealthy (or even middle-class) kids in later teen drama/comedies. Their lives seem set, so why do they need jobs? All they seem to need is an economically stable life so they can focus on their crushes, their self-discovery, and their “happily ever after.”
However, in Act II of “Fast Times,” the economic reality of sexual choices is front and center when Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) hook up — resulting in Stacy getting pregnant. When she confronts Damone (no one really calls him “Mike”) with the news at school, he eventually agrees to pay for half of her abortion and take her to the clinic. Stacy seems to have the money, but because Damone makes his living scalping concert tickets, he often sells people tickets on credit. While trying to get $75 together to pay for his half of the abortion, we see him fruitlessly working the phones to get the money. Most of the people don’t have the cash (or promise to pay it at a later date). So what does Damone do? He flakes on Stacy — leaving her to take care of her unwanted pregnancy herself. If it wasn’t for her brother Brad waiting in the parking lot after she was released from the clinic, she wouldn’t have had any emotional support at all.
The other economic issues are less pronounced in the film, but we do know that these kids have expenses. Brad is paying off his car (i.e., “Six more payments, gentlemen, and this beautiful…blue, four-door, luxury sedan is all mine”), Mark “Rat” Ratner (Brian Backer) forgets his wallet on a date with Stacy (money made from being an usher at a movie theater), and has to really coax Damone (his only friend) to bring it to him at a restaurant where he and Stacy are dining. We also see that middle-class isn’t depicted as an endless bounty of comfort. Rather, the middle-class home of Brad and Stacy’s parents are fairly unremarkable — and the homes of Spicoli (whose dad is a television repairman) and Damone (who lives in a two bedroom apartment) are those of people on the margins economically. For a Hollywood movie, this somewhat unusual. And for a Hollywood movie set in suburban California, this is really unusual. The lives the characters lead in “Fast Times” aren’t glamorous. Except for football player Charles Jefferson (Forrest Whitaker) who drives a 1979 Chevy Camaro, almost all the main characters either take bus or have low-cost cars. Brad’s car is a 1960 Buick LeSabre, Damone drives a 1970s era AMC Gremlin, Rat borrows his sister’s sports car for a his date with Stacy — but one gets the feeling he rides the bus to school.
Why is any of this relevant? Because it clearly informs the viewers that these kids are probably like them — well, like them in 1982. The U.S. was just coming out of the stagflation years of the mid-’70s, and Reagan’s presidency was not doing well as the country slipped into a fairly bad recession with 10.8% unemployment nationally. So, to see the characters in “Fast Times” happy to have jobs in the consumer economy (i.e., the mall) could be seen as an attempt give teens hope that life would be okay if they just worked hard at jobs they could get.
Hollywood is good at many things, but they are especially good at selling fantasies. Hard work is one thing, but sometimes people work hard so they can achieve those fantasies they see on the screen. That’s why in “Fast Times” we are treated to Linda Barrett — played by Phoebe Cates– coming out of swimming pool while undoing her bikini top. That’s why we don’t question Spicoli’s ability to buy a pair of checkerboard slip-on Vans, cigarettes, beer and pot — even though rarely has any money. Nor do we wonder how the “Pat Benatar triplets” are able to get enough cash so they can parade around the high school halls in different outfits throughout the film. Those scenes are the aspirational things the audience wants and remembers long after they’ve left the theater. How many checkerboard shoes did Vans sell after “Fast Times?” Short answer: a LOT. How many Camaros did Chevy sell ? Car and Driver magazine compiled sales figures for that year, and Chevy did see a good bump. Was it due to “Fast Times?” I’m sure the movie didn’t hurt sales:
So, while the “Elizabeth” meme parodied more current teen movies, with “Fast Times” there were many moments where authenticity trumped fantasy for those in high school during the early ’80s. Instead of distilling teen dramas into a stock character used to generalize a generation, “Fast Times” was able to include many realities teens of the late 70s/early 80s were living with (i.e., jobs, being latchkey kids, drugs, sex, and early adult responsibilities). However, because Hollywood teen comedies aren’t documentaries, a film like “Fast Times” was able to successfully balance the fantasies Hollywood sells us with a dose of the realities teens faced back then. That’s a combination Hollywood hasn’t successfully replicated in a teen comedy since the release of “Fast Times” in 1982.