Anthony Edwards, Sean Penn, and Eric Stoltz in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Universal Pictures/Everett Collection

Beginning in the fall of 1979, a 22-year-old Cameron Crowe, who at the time already had several years of experience writing for Rolling Stone and Creem, spent a school year undercover at Clairemont High School in San Diego. He drew from the experience to write his 1981 novel Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which he adapted himself for the screen: it was his first movie credit, and the first for director Amy Heckerling. Though teenage high jinks—and insecurities—are a staple of American comedies, Fast Times stands tall among them, not just for its brisk, breezy pacing, or for the vivid quality of its characters (like Sean Penn’s glassy-eyed stoner-surfer Spicoli), but for its frankness about teenage abortion, and its refusal to address the termination of a pregnancy as a moral quandary worthy of society’s handwringing. Which is not to say that Heckerling and Crowe treat the subject lightly: when 15-year-old Stacy Hamilton—played by a very young and extremely touching Jennifer Jason Leigh—confronts the young cad who got her pregnant, Robert Romanus’ Mike Damone, he resists taking responsibility. They only “did it” once; he’s just not interested in her problems. Then, with an eyeroll, he says he figures she expects him to pay for it.

Stacy tentatively lays out the terms: she’d like him to pay half, but also maybe give her a ride to the clinic? (He never shows up, though she gets through the procedure on her own.) You could argue that Heckerling doesn’t spend a lot of time showing the emotional toll of a terminated pregnancy. On the other hand, her matter-of-factness is just what’s called for. This act won’t ruin Stacy’s life; it might actually save it. And the fact that she has access to a safe abortion is a given. Leigh, as Stacy, is a young woman barely out of girlhood—her face still has a cherubic roundness. To think of what she’d have to go through today, if she happened to live in the wrong state, adds another layer of context to Heckerling’s approach. And it makes 1982, fairly recent history, seem so very far away.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at

The Godfather Part II (1974)
Jaws (1975)
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Little Women (2019)