Two, you always call the shots. 'Kiss me. You won't regret it.'
Now three, act like wherever you are, that's the place to be. 'Isn't this great?'
Four, when ordering food, you find out what she wants, then order for the both of you. It's a classy move. 'Now, the lady will have the linguini and white clam sauce, and a Coke with no ice.'
And five, now this is the most important, Rat. When it comes down to making out, whenever possible, put on side one of Led Zeppelin IV."
It follows the lives of a handful of high school students over the course of a school year, focusing mostly on Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her eventual boyfriend, Mark "Rat" Ratner (Brian Backer). The other main characters are Stacy's brother, Brad (Judge Reinhold); her best friend, Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates); Rat's best friend, Mike Damone (Robert Romanus); Jeff Spicoli, a perpetual stoner in Stacy's history class (Sean Penn); and Mr. Arnold Hand, the history teacher who is frequently put upon by Spicoli's antics (Ray Walston).
Also appearing in the cast are some unknowns who became much bigger stars. Anthony Edwards is the third guy in Spicoli's stoner trio. The big tough football player is Forest Whitaker. And blink and you'll miss him, but one of the two guys working the grill in the scene where Brad is fired at the fast foot place is Nicolas Cage, making his film debut and credited under his real name of Nicolas Coppola.
When the film was first released, it received mostly negative reviews from critics who wrote it off as just another teen Sex Comedy. These days, it's often considered one of the best high school films ever made. It was also known as the first significant North American teen movie of The '80s.
This film demonstrates the following tropes:
- Abortion Fallout Drama: When Stacy Hamilton gets pregnant by Mike Damone, an abortion is quickly decided. The drama revolves not on the controversy or ill effects of the abortion, but on Damone flaking on paying his half, and failing to provide a promised ride to a clinic. Stacy goes through the procedure without Damone's support. After the procedure, Stacy is at a field trip with her biology class and becomes uncomfortable at the sight of her teacher performing an autopsy because it reminds her of the abortion. But it is mostly a passing moment and Stacy goes on with her life and dates Mark.
- Adaptation Distillation: The film narrows its focus from the novel, dropping some peripheral characters completely, combining some (Damone and the ticket scalper character, for example) and simplifying some plot threads (Brad's journey down the fast-food prestige chain starts when he gets buffaloed into quitting his much-desired position at Carl's Jr., for instance, which was dropped from the film).
- Adults Are Useless: With the notable exception of Mr. Hand, the adults are either jerks or inconsequential.
- All There in the Script: In the original screenplay it is revealed that Mike Damone is a transfer student from South Philadelphia.
- Artistic License – Music: Despite being told to play side one of "Led Zeppelin IV" on his date, Mark ends up playing "Kashmir" from "Physical Graffiti" instead. This is partly Genius Bonus (few outsides of the truly devoted would know exact Zeppelin track listings) and partly Throw It In!. The producers were unable to secure clearances for "IV" and it could be played off as Mark picking the wrong album.
- Artistic License – Sports: Some of Jefferson's actions during the football scene would result in personal foul penalties in a real football game. In particular, shoving a referee is considered a major offense and is generally grounds for immediate ejection, if not suspension from subsequent games.
- Bad Job, Worse Uniform: Brad's brief tenure at "Captain Hook's Fish and Chips." When his boss makes him do a delivery dressed in it, he flings the hat out the window along with the delivery.
- Big Sister Mentor: Linda acts as somewhat of an older sister to Stacy. She gives her lots of advice and speaks of her experience (which is possibly fake as she says comments that contradict each other) and comments on how young and innocent Stacy is as well as looks out for her and wants to seek revenge when Stacy gets hurt.
- Book Ends: The film opens up with scenes of the goings-on at Ridgemont Mall; and after the "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue, the end credits start with the mall businesses closing down at the end of the day.
- Brick Joke:
- Near the opening, Damone remarks to some kid customers that as a result of some bad scalping, he was "this" close to working at 7-11. In the film's "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue, it is mentioned that he was busted for scalping Ozzy Osbourne tickets and is now working at 7-11.
- Says Mr. Hand, "What are you, people? On DOPE?!?" In the end, he is convinced everybody is on dope!
- Burger Fool: Brad works at two of these, with varying levels of horribleness. He is fired from the first due to an Unsatisfiable Customer and quits the second. There is another fast food joint that manages to be even worse; mostly mentioned only in dialogue, it is shown at the beginning of the film when one of its employees, Arnold, tries to operate a milkshake machine, only to have the mixture splash back in his face.
- The Cameo: Nancy Wilson, Cameron Crowe's girlfriend at the time (and, later, wife), plays the woman in the car who laughs at Brad's ridiculous uniform (from his fast-food job).
- Casanova Wannabe: Damone sees himself as a real ladies' man, but we only actually see him with Stacy.
- Caught with Your Pants Down: Brad masturbates while daydreaming about Linda getting out of the pool and taking her top off. Unfortunately, the real Linda opens the door on him. He complains: "Doesn't anyone fucking knock anymore?"
- Celebrity Impersonator: Pat Benatar — at the height of her fame — is a major style inspiration at Ridgemont.Stacy: Woah Linda, that girl over there looks just like Pat Benatar!
Linda: Wait, there are three girls at Ridgemont who've cultivated the Pat Benatar look.
- Composite Character: Damone's business as a ticket scalper was handled by a separate character in the novel.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: Jefferson, mad from the destruction of his car ostensibly by Lincoln's team (actually by Spicoli), takes his rage out on them, sacking large numbers of players on the field. The final score is 42-0.
- Defacement Insult: Charles Jefferson, Ridgemont High's star football player, finds his car destroyed and defaced with insults allegedly perpetrated by people from a rival school. But it was actually his brother and Spicoli, who had taken it for a joyride and wrecked it. They painted the slurs to cover up their culpability.
- Played straight later in the movie, when Linda spray paints "prick" on Mike Damone's car and writes "little prick" on his locker for going back on his promise to drive Stacy to the abortion clinic when he can't pay for his half of the cost, despite being the one to impregnate her in the first place.
- Did I Mention It's Christmas?: Christmas shows up at least once in the movie's story, with the only highlight of it being that a Mall Santa gets a wet lap from a child peeing in his pants and nothing else.
- The Dog Bites Back: Tired of being pushed around in increasingly crappy jobs, Brad finally snaps on an armed robber by shouting at him to get off his back and throwing hot coffee in his face. This turns out to be the reverse in fortunes Brad needs, as he gets a promotion out of it.
- Dress CodeStoners: No shirt, no shoes, no dice! Ohhhh.
Brad Hamilton: Right. Learn it. Know it. Live it.
- Dressed to Plunder: When Brad ends up working at a pirate-themed restaurant, he realizes how low his life has sunk when he catches a look at himself in his own rearview mirror making a delivery dressed as a pirate.
- Drives Like Crazy: Spicoli. He manages to crash Jefferson's car because he's both high and drinking at the time.
- Ethical Slut: Linda has her standards when it comes to what’s just pertaining to sexual escapades.
- Female Gaze: Linda's first line: "Did you see his cute little butt?".
- Fictional Counterpart: The fast-food seafood restaurant where Brad works seems to be based on Long John Silver's.
- Film of the Book: The film was actually based on a novel written by Crowe two years earlier, which was in turn based on a year he spent undercover as a student at Clairemont High in San Diego, his way of making it up to himself for missing so much of his real high school years to do rock interviews.
- Foreshadowing: Mr. Hand's first-class session begins with an explanation of the rules - most importantly, no eating. He tells the class that they would not want him to come to their homes on their time to teach them. Spicoli has pizza delivered to the classroom at one point, and at the end of the year, Mr. Hand visits Spicoli at his home to teach him as a consequence of the time he had wasted in class.
- The Ghost: Linda's boyfriend is mentioned several times, but never seen. Of course, he might be a...
- Girlfriend in Canada: It's hinted, but not confirmed, that Linda's college-age boyfriend Doug might not exist. A couple of times Linda makes mistakes when talking about him, and her bragging about all the awesome sex she and Doug are having has a strong whiff of Have I Mentioned I Am Sexually Active Today?.
- High-School Dance: The film features one of these at the end, with considerably few of the cornier aspects.
- Hormone-Addled Teenager: Other than the adult teachers and Spicoli, who's too distracted getting high and playing pranks on Mr. Hand to show much interest in sex, pretty much every main character is one.
- Hypocritical Humor: Spicoli is both high and drunk while driving Jefferson's car. At one point, he gets stuck behind some slower drivers and says "People on 'ludes should not drive!"
- Imagine Spot: Utilized a few different times, when Spicoli fantasizes about winning a surfing championship and Brad imagines Linda coming on to him while masturbating in the bathroom.
- Irony: From the book, the lead suspect in the effort to alienate Ridgemont's star football player via race-based hate speech graffiti is a high school called Lincoln.
- Laser-Guided Karma: Damone. He gets Stacy pregnant, and when she tells him, he blames her, but eventually agrees to pay for half of her abortion procedure and give her a ride to the clinic. Not only does he not do this, he refuses her calls and never speaks to her again. Linda avenges his actions, however, by spray painting his car and locker with the words "little prick" and Rat later confronts him about it and even challenges him to fisticuffs. In the end, he apologizes...to Rat, for stealing his girl.
- Last-Name Basis: Jeff Spicoli, Mike Damone, Mark Ratner, and Charles Jefferson are all referred to almost exclusively by their last names (or, in Ratner's case, by a diminutive of their last).
- Lets Wait Awhile: What Rat and Stacy decide to do.
- Leitmotif: Somebody's Baby by Jackson Browne whenever Stacy and sex are involved. In fact, the song has at this point become synonymous with reckless teen sex, to the point that Not Another Teen Movie used a cover of it in one of their many gags.
- Lighter and Softer: The 1986 sitcom version of the film, Fast Times, was widely panned by critics for completely eliminating the mature themes that made the film so memorable with many pronouncing it D.O.A. because of how sanitized it was.
- Lousy Lovers Are Losers: Stacy and Mike Damone hook up with each other to have sex, but Mike lasts for less than a minute and he soon puts some clothes back up and leaves, leaving her unsatisfied. Even worse is that Stacy gets pregnant from it.
- Make-Out Point: It's even called "the point".
- Masturbation Means Sexual Frustration: After seeing Linda in her bikini, Hormone-Addled Teenager Brad masturbates while daydreaming about her doing a Sexy Surfacing Shot out of a pool and taking her top off. And then the real Linda opens the door on him.
- "Mister Sandman" Sequence: Time has turned the opening scenes of kids in the mall to the tune of "We Got The Beat" into one of these.
- Mood Whiplash: The scenes dealing with Stacy tend to invoke this trope.
- Never Trust a Trailer: The trailer makes Forest Whitaker's character out to be much bigger than it is.
- No Antagonist: While some deeds of the characters are morally questionable at best, there is a little real conflict between them (and whatever conflict there still was ended with reconciliation between parties).
- Non-Giving-Up School Guy: Mr. Hand is determined to educate Spicoli to the point where he turns up at his house on prom night and makes him go through a book until he gets it. It's implied that this happens with at least one student every year.
- Oktoberfest: Mark Ratner takes Stacy on a date to a German restaurant. The waitress who serves them is a Rubenesque woman wearing lederhosen.
- Pom-Pom Girl: The cheerleaders are excited about their job even though their team rarely wins and try to put on excited faces at pep rallies despite knowing they no one takes them seriously due to the poor performance of the team.
- Pool Scene: Linda and some of her friends splash around in a swimming pool. Brad has a fantasy about his crush Linda resurfacing from a swimming pool. Leading to Erotic Dream, and Caught with Your Pants Down.
- Post-Support Regret: Mark has always told everyone who badmouthed Damone that they just didn’t know him as well as Mark, but after Damone sleeps with Stacy, a girl he knew Mark loved, he starts to think maybe he’s the one who doesn’t know Damone as well as everyone else does.Mark: Look, I always stick up for you. Whenever people say, "Aw, that-that Damone, he's a loudmouth, and they say that a lot, I always say, "Hey, you just don't know Damone." I mean when they call you an idiot, I say "Hey, Damone's not an idiot, you just don't know him." Well, you know something man, maybe they do know you. Pretty good. Maybe I'm just finding out now.
- The Precious, Precious Car: Jefferson gets a slick sports car as a gift for returning to play football for Ridgemont. Spicoli takes it for a spin with Jefferson's little brother and trashes it, activating Jefferson's Berserk Button. Luckily Spicoli was able to frame their rival high school. Later, we see Jefferson leading the football team to a major lopsided victory and reversing the school's poor athletic performance in the process.
- Poster-Gallery Bedroom: Spicoli's bedroom walls are covered with posters of nude women.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Mr. Hand. He's tough on his students, but does seem to genuinely want them to learn, and is at least upfront and direct about his expectations (such as handing them a schedule on the very first day of the tests for the semester and what they'll cover, rather than springing unfair surprise quizzes and assignments on them). Also, he lets Spicoli off the hook to go have some fun at the dance, despite Spicoli spending the entire year annoying him.
- Running Gag: Spicoli trying Mr. Hand's patience.
- Sensei for Scoundrels: Damone gives Rat plenty of sleazy advice on how to appear cool and pick up Stacy, then uses Rat's awkwardness to make himself look better in her eyes. Rat eventually calls him out on it and gets the girl.
- Sequel Hook: The story could have easily picked up again during or after the events described in the "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue.
- Sexy Surfacing Shot: Brad masturbates in the bathroom while daydreaming about Linda getting out of the pool, taking her top off, and kissing him. Unfortunately, the real Linda opens the door on him.
- Sharp-Dressed Man: As Brad fantasizes about Linda, he imagines himself kissing her while wearing a three-piece suit for some reason
- Ship Tease: The famous bikini scene is this for Brad and Linda. Linda notices Brad, who has recently broken up with his girlfriend, and says "God, he hardly even talks anymore." Then he goes into the bathroom and enthusically masturbates to an Imagine Spot fantasy of her topless. Nothing more comes of this.
- Shout-Out: In the "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue, we are reminded that Jeff Spicoli has saved Brooke Shields from drowning.
- Speed Sex: When Damone and Stacy get it on, Damone is only able to last for a few seconds before climaxing (and to make things even crueler for Stacy, she ends up getting pregnant from that encounter).
- Stern Teacher: Mr. Hand is pretty unforgiving to his students, and especially Spicoli, who arguably deserves it. In the end, he gives him a chance at redemption. Some of his comments lean towards Sadist Teacher territory but he seems to be a genuinely decent guy, just very strict. The novel says that "even some of the hardcore truants" respected his approach.
- Stoners Are Funny: Spicoli and his buddies. Upon seeing Spicoli entering the American History class, a student named Desmond comments to Stacy "That guy's been stoned since the third grade."
- Surfer Dude: Spicoli delivers all of his dialogue in California surfer speak, and when he isn't getting baked out of his mind on pot or Quaaludes, his life's only ambition is to catch some seriously tasty waves on his surfboard at the nearest beach.
- Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Played for laughs near the end of the movie when it's revealed that Mr. Vargas (the nerdy science teacher) is married to a gorgeous blonde played by Lana Clarkson. His students are struck speechless by how hot Mrs. Vargas is.
- Unlucky Everydude: Rat seems like this for most of the film, an awkward, shy dude with no idea how to get a girl's attention, and going to the worst person for advice. He wises up a bit.
- Waxing Lyrical: Mike is such a fan of Cheap Trick, he uses their lyrics to make passes at girls.
- What Have I Become?: When Brad looks in his rearview mirror and sees himself dressed as a pirate while delivering an order of seafood, it causes him to realize just how low he's sunk.
- "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The epilogue reveals what happened to many of the characters after the end of the movie.
- Brad Hamilton - Made manager of MI-T-MART June 12.
- Mike Damone - Busted for scalping Ozzy Osbourne tickets. Now works at 7-11.
- Mr. Vargas - Switched back to coffee.
- Linda Barrett - Attending college at Riverside. Now living with her Abnormal Psych Professor.
- Rat and Stacy - Having a passionate love affair. But still haven't gone all the way.
- Mr. Hand - Convinced everyone is on dope.
- Jeff Spicoli - Saved Brooke Shields from drowning. Blows reward money hiring Van Halen to play his birthday party.