The Breakfast Club
US (1985) Dir. John Hughes
Everyone has that one film which they always seem to catch on TV but only when its half way through. For me, that film is writer/director John Hughes’s seminal 80’s teen comedy drama The Breakfast Club.
This is the film that essentially paved the way for the angsty rebellious teen comedy of the period such as St Elmo’s Fire and Pretty In Pink as well as given many music acts their biggest chart hits with songs included in the films (whatever happened to John Parr anyway?). In turn the new “brat pack” of teen/twenty something actors was formed – most of who are featured here – who were regulars of the genre.
Quite how a complete viewing of this film continued to elude me for so long I am not sure but thanks to the multiple repeat policy of the secondary ITV channels this has now be rectified.
The story concerns five students at Shermer High School who have been given a Saturday detention. They cover the usual school tropes – the sporty one Andrew (Emilio Estevez), the boffin Brian (Anthony Michael Hall), the rich girl Claire (Molly Ringwald), the loner Allison (Ally Sheedy) and the troublemaker John (Judd Nelson). They are presided over by hardheaded Vice Principal Mr. Vernon (Paul Gleason) who gives them no quarter.
It could have been a po-faced “them vs. us” clash in which the aggrieved students rebel against the authority of the teacher and by the end, the usual lessons are learned but Hughes cleverly subverts this. Instead the theme of film is two-fold – first, the students are keen to dispel the narrow-minded preconceptions of the adults around them, their struggle being not having a voice and being ignored.
Second, the kids themselves run around in different circles and ne’er the twain shall meet but when brought together they realise they share many common problems and fears. Of course it takes while for them to reach this point of mutual respect and civility, with the bulk of their interactions being mostly frosty and hostile, with John Bender at the heart of the antagonism.
Bender for me was the toughest character to warm to. He was the designated anti-hero whom were supposed to dislike then cheer as he bucks the system, but he is relentlessly obnoxious and heartlessly offensive, effectively cancelling out the good will from one scene almost immediately in the next. He, like the others, has a strained relationship with his parents, evidently including physical abuse which shapes his rebellious and carefree attitude.
His biggest rival switches between Vernon, which provides some of the comedy as well as exposing Bender’s macho facade, and Andrew, the wrestling champ who is the only one of the students to stand up to Bender. His parental issue is a father whom he idolises and wants to live up to, involving himself in typical jock behaviour which includes bullying to get his father’s approval. This both drives him yet disturbs him, a similar trait found in Brian who has had the idea that bad grades equate to worthlessness ingrained into him by his demanding parents.
The two girls are polar opposites – the popular princess with the rich father (she had hoped his influence would get her excused from the detention) and the scruffy goth-lite loner. Allison doesn’t speak until a third of the way through the film – her first word being “Vodka” – instead she observes the others and laughs at their discussions. Claire is also a primary target for Bender, who teases her about her love life which later becomes a subject for a post weed smoking group discussion.
Yes this is a detention unlike the ones you and I may have had at school. Vernon assigned them a 1000 word essay on how they are which of course is ignored as the group bicker, fight, run riot around the school, have a dance party, smoke pot and eventually open up to each other. Vernon meanwhile gets a few life lessons of his own courtesy of cynical but canny janitor Carl (John Kapelos), much to his chagrin.
Despite a 92 minute run time a lot of ground is covered in the journey of this disparate quintet, but that time feels insufficient as the conclusion is rushed with the issues ironed out with some alacrity considering the hostility was still raw moments earlier. But the script is astute and well observed, and carries a message for both parents and kids alike about talking to each other, understanding each other and allow the young to find their own identities and not be clones of the parents.
The young cast had varying degrees of success after this film, although young is pushing it in some cases – both Emilio Estevez and Ally Sheedy were 23 at the time while Judd Nelson was a comparatively elderly 26! Only Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall were genuine teens, both 17 at the time. Yet it is the roles they stepped into here that will define the most which have since gone on to be imitated, duplicated and lampooned ad infinitum.
John Hughes was a prolific screenwriter but this was his second of just eight films as director and while he follows many conventions he established a few in the process. I do have one niggle – (mini spoiler) Allison gets a make-over at the end; why after 90 minutes of people getting to know each other behind their facades was this necessary? It goes against everything they achieved, plus Allison looked better as a weirdo!
It’s easy to see why The Breakfast Club is a modern classic, not in the least for its the new paradigm it created for American 80’s cinema. The personalities of the characters may not translate directly to us foreigners but the messages will continue to resonate and provoke for global audiences as they should.