The films of Amy Heckerling occupy the realm of Hollywood mass culture rather than the feminist art cinema of Sally Potter or Chantal Akerman. It is thus tempting to dismiss them by claiming that they’re intellectually lightweight, or adolescent (they are mostly comedies, and many of them have become cult films among young audiences), or generally not politically or aesthetically radical enough to count as the work of a Great Female Director. The late Nora Ephron suffered similar criticism for her hugely successful romantic comedies. But the genres in which these filmmakers work(ed) reveal differences in their aesthetic politics, as well as in their fundamental attitudes toward gender, cinema, and ideology. While Ephron’s “women’s films” draw on the generic traditions of the melodrama and the screwball comedy, the conventions of which have always been the property of the Hollywood studio system, Heckerling has continually been attracted to the genre of the teen film, which has always lived on the margins of Hollywood. The independent studio American International Pictures (AIP) was the king of the teen drive-in movies of the 1960s, and, in general, the teen movie has often been maligned as a lowbrow genre, kicked around, waved off, and not taken seriously (much like its characters). Lowbrow genres like the teen film, the horror film, and pornography certainly are certainly not free of the ideological imperatives that structure more mainstream fare, but their very marginality gives them a bit of room to wiggle around them. Because they are often ignored or not taken seriously, these genres become places where filmmakers can often explore ideas and subject matter that would be unpalatable in a prestige picture.
Which brings us to virginity and teenage female sexuality, the subjects that (I would argue) lie at the heart of Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), a film that, thirty years down the road, is still striking in its sexual frankness. High schoolers Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Linda (Phoebe Cates) dish about sex more casually—and less neurotically—than the women of Sex and the City despite being less than half their age. Stacy, who loses her virginity and has an abortion over the course of the film, is only fifteen; Linda is perhaps two years older but speaks about sex with the world-weariness of a divorcee (she claims to have lost her virginity at thirteen, though it’s possible that she’s exaggerating to play up her role as older-wiser girl). Even as we may be taken aback in these moments, they’re beautiful examples of Heckerling’s utterly wise, matter-of-fact, yet gentle and often poignantly funny attitude toward the minefield of teen sex, particularly as it’s traversed by young women. Her films may not have the brutal cynicism of, say, Catherine Breillat’s, but in their shared commitment to taking clear-eyed, bracingly unsentimental looks at how young women have sex, and why, and what that means, they’re less dissimilar than one might think.