Retro Review: John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club Changed the Teen Movie Game Thirty Years Ago Today

Breakfast Club poster 1

When John Hughes died nearly six years ago, we all lost something pretty big. People throw around terms like “voice of a generation” all the time without merit, but I think that many people would openly and happily vouch for Hughes as the voice of my generation, me included. I have argued that he might have had the strongest 5-year run in film history before and I think that its hard to argue against it especially since so few filmmakers are able to match Hughes‘ output. While my favorite film of his oeuvre is Weird Science, for many reasons, but I don’t think there is any doubt that his most enduring film is The Breakfast Club. One of the crown jewels of film from 1985, The Breakfast simultaneous took the teen movie genre to new heights and smashed them at the same time. I don’t think another teen film prior to or since has captured the teen experience as well as this film. Hughes had some preternatural feel for the teen condition, for their trials and tribulations, even coming at it from a sizable distance – he was 35 when he made The Breakfast Club.

breakfast club - group

So let’s set the stage for what this film is all about – five kids, five very different kids (or so it seems) are stuck together in Saturday detention under the watchful eye of Assistant Principal Richard Vernon (a deliciously wicked Paul Gleason) who tells them that their time will not be spent sleeping or conversing but writing an essay about who each of them think they are. Immediately at odds with Vernon is John Bender (Judd Nelson), the school hood/burnout who has clearly spent many Saturdays under Mr. Vernon’s supervision setting up an absolutely epic back and forth throughout the film. Along with Bender, there is the most popular girl in school, Claire (Molly Ringwald), a stud wrestler, Andrew (Emilio Estevez), an honor’s student, Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) and a mysterious girl named Allison (Ally Sheedy). As the day progresses, the students learn more about each other, for better or worse, and try their best to stay one step ahead of Vernon. What transpires are emotional adventures that extend well beyond the walls of the fictional Shermer High School, some triumphs, others defeats.

breakfast club - benderBender is the antagonist of the film and the most interesting of the characters, trying his best to get under the skins of each of the other characters with exception of Allison, as she, like him, is one of the invisibles in the school – not cool enough to garner attention, not smart enough to draw accolades. And it works. As the day progresses, Bender is the catalyst for really everything that happens. He causes both action and reaction, which opens the other characters up in way that likely couldn’t have happened without someone like him there. He betrays his tough exterior from time to time, giving us emotion in a way that no one would expect from someone like him. I think he is Hughes‘ master stroke in this film. Despite everyone’s perception of what he’s like, even Vernon’s, Bender shows not only how clever, calculated and cunning he is, but also how emotional he can be.

breakfast club - brianWhile the other characters may not play the huge role that Bender does, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t rich, complicated and multi-dimensional – another of Hughes‘ trademarks. Brian, the brainiac who seemingly has the tools to create anything for himself in the future can’t get past the fact that he failed a project in shop class, resorting to a then shocking revelation that he brought a gun to school. Who would blink an eye about this now with 20+ shootings at schools and colleges since the Columbine shootings in 1999? But in 1985, that shit was shocking. No one thought anything like that could happen, especially involving a student like Brian. He, like Claire, is under pressure although of a different kind – the kind to perform and be the best, not just that he can be, but of everyone around him at least academically. He surprises us with his willingness to adapt and fit in, not for reasons that he thinks will make him cool, but because it’s the thing he should do given the circumstances. This is his way to alleviate that pressure.

breakfast club - claireClaire is the essential queenie-type character, the girl everyone that every girl wants to be like and every boy wants to be with. Her defense of the social norms at Shermer where her peer group pressures her to act a certain way and do certain things even though she doesn’t necessarily want to follow those rules is quite telling. I can’t recall another character prior to her that addresses this subject so bluntly and openly, yet so resigned to be a part of the problem that perpetuates its nonsense. While I appreciated her honesty, I wanted to punch her in the damn neck because of it. As we come to find out, Claire is hurting like all of the others, but her struggle isn’t considered as important because how bad can it really be for the rich girl who has everything – friends, money, popularity? When I think of Claire, I can’t help but to think of another redhead’s line, Cherry Valance from The Outsiders, “Things are rough all over.” And so it is in Claire’s case. She is the toughest character to sympathize with because so few people have occupied the rarefied air that she inhabits and her issues seem paltry in comparison. Ringwald was the Hughes chameleon, becoming whatever he needed her to become in the films he wrote and directed (Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink). I wish it was a collaboration that would have continued.

breakfast club - andrewAndrew is your typical all-American jock boy, tough talker but picks on kids weaker than him to somehow appease a father that is living vicariously through his exploits. Constantly being cautioned about losing “his ride”, Andrew responds to situations the way he thinks his father or his coach would want him to. Perhaps the most wooden character in the bunch, Andrew still hits us really hard with emotion that once again we wouldn’t come to expect, especially given the era in which this film was made, where men were still urged to be tough, put up a front that nothing bothered them and that showing emotion was equivalent to being feminine. Here it is that Hughes shifts our expectations of who this character should be.

breakfast club - allison

Which leaves us with Allison, who is hard to figure out. She keeps us guessing throughout the film, at first shy and withdrawn, but eventually literally comes out of her shell (represented by her makeup and heavy coat) and blossoms like a flower. That she does so in an effort to gain the gaze of a male (Andrew) seems too primitive for an artist like Hughes on first glance. However, when you take into context her circumstances regarding her parents, this transformation makes a tremendous amount of sense. She is the perfect counterpoint to Ringwald‘s Claire. Where Claire is superficial and conniving, Allison is clever and brooding, always looking for an angle to keep who she is hidden, something that is reinforced by her parents ignoring her existence (Hughes brilliantly sets this up and really all of the characters’ situations in the opening scene of the film).

breakfast club - group

 

That Hughes wraps the whole film up nicely with perhaps the most iconic song and final image (the 80s equivalent of the final image of The 400 Blows) of any 80s film is really the cherry on top. “Don’t You Forget About Me” by Simple Minds can be applied to the film in so many different ways and when walking away after the film is over certainly leads you back to think about what has just transpired. The essay that Brian wrote to Mr. Vernon on behalf of the five that were charged with defining themselves in 1,000 is one of the better fuck yous ever as well. Here is the text:

Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole saturday in detention for whatever it is we did wrong, but we think you’re crazy for making us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out, is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basketcase, a princess, and a criminal.

Does that answer your question?

Sincerely yours, The Breakfast Club.

And here is the ending sequence which may have spoilers if you can call them that, so tread lightly ye who have yet to see the film:

This film is a masterclass in character development and I maintain that no other teen-focused film captures the angst and uncertainty of high school life better. To do this with the deft touch of seriousness dabbled with proper comedic timing of lines and situations is all the more incredible. John Hughes is truly missed. He wrote and directed a large portion of films that comprised my preteen years and frankly they helped prepared me for the world I was about to enter. So I once again say thanks to John Hughes, his actors, producers and anyone who had anything to do with the making of his films. They are treasured and are still the measuring stick for how teen films will be judged.

Damn…30 years. It’s crazy to think it’s been that long since I watched this on VHS for the first time.

And if you are someone who has yet to see this film, what the hell are you waiting for? Here’s the trailer:

About Jeremy Harmon

He is Jeremy Harmon aka Spirit of the Thing aka Harmonov. Once a Van Damme/action movie devotee, he now prefers to delve into small budget, independent and foreign films. Jeremy maintains that Slap Shot is the best movie ever. Follow him on Twitter @harmonov or read his new blog @ http://spiritofthething.wordpress.com/