The plot of Fast Times is pretty simple: the film follows a group of high schoolers through one year. For Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold), a job that's not humiliating is hard to find. His sister, Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is discovering sex, and sets her sights on shy, dorky Mark "Rat" Ratner (Brian Backer), who in turn seeks advice from "entrepreneur" Mike Damone (Robert Romanus). And then there's Jeff Spicolli (Sean Penn), a well-meaning, easy-going, always-baked surfer who's perfectly content with his life as it is.
Behind the scenes is a teen-angst dream team making their film debuts: director Amy Heckerling, who would later direct Clueless, knowingly treats her characters as people without turning them into cliches or discounting the experiences of teenagers. And the script is written by none other than Cameron Crowe, adapted from his own book. His dialogue sparkles throughout the film, and he nails the personalities of all his characters and makes them complicated and interesting.
But of course its the acting that makes the film work so well. Reinhold, collected and fun, nails the painful humor of Brad's gradual loss of dignity, making the payoff more rewarding. I couldn't get over how similar he is to Jason Segel, though. Just look at them! Uncanny, right?
Leigh shows early promise as the newly sexualized Stacy, and she oozes that sexuality in all of her scenes. But it's Penn that steals the show. Spicoli was one of his first screen roles, and it was certainly his breakout, and it proves something that many have forgotten in his Oscar-winning years: he has a natural knack for comedy. But what makes Penn's performance here truly outstanding is how deeply human he makes the character: his puppy-dog eyes and innocent face tell you that yeah, he is somewhat of a screw-up, but he doesn't mean to upset you, he just wants to be himself. His scenes with exasperated history teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) are easily the film's best, and Penn shows that even then he had an incredible understanding of performance. Its the birth of an actor.