The Breakfast Club (1985)
Written & Directed by John Hughes
No name is associated more with teen movies of the 1980s than John Hughes. The writer-director had quite an impressive record: Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Outside of teen films, he penned and/or directed all the National Lampoon’s Vacation films, Uncle Buck, Home Alone, and the stellar comedy Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Hughes found ways to make comedies that appealed to broad audiences yet were smart with pathos. He also found ways to inject stylistics flourishes playing with the reality of his worlds, it never felt out of place but blended perfectly with the more realistic tones. The Breakfast Club is considered by many of his fans to be the quintessential Hughes teen movie.
Five students arrive to serve eight hours of detention on a Saturday morning at a fictional high school in the Chicago suburbs. Each student represents an adolescent clique from the jocks to the punks, nerds, preppies, and weirdoes. The assistant principal Dick Vernon (Paul Gleason), immediately takes a hostile tone and restricts them from everything except writing an essay on the question “Who do you think you are?” There are immediate conflicts between the teens with the pot being stirred by Bender (Judd Nelson), a student who clearly has emotional issues and an abusive home. The layers get peeled away, and the audience and the students begin to see each other as more complex than initially perceived.
The Breakfast Club is a movie all about the performances. The plot is straightforward, with a limited setting over a few hours. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out this movie has been adapted to the stage because it would make a perfect play. Because the film is so centered on characters and growth, the actors have to be pretty damn stellar, and thankfully everyone is up to the task. Judd Nelson is going to stand out because Bender is such a central figure to getting the talking going, but I think the other performances probably get unfairly underrated.
Molly Ringwald reminds us why Hughes cast her in two other leading roles, she’s such a natural talent, none of her lines feel forced, and she never slides into cliche with a character that we’ve seen time and time again portrayed as an airhead or unaware of their privilege. Claire knows she has more opportunities than other teens and openly acknowledges that she exists at the top of a hierarchical structure because she is popular. She doesn’t like being there but feels powerless to upend things because of peer pressure and an inability to imagine anything else.
I never saw this film until now, but I suspect if I had been younger, I would have been more taken in by the kids but as a man approaching forty who is a teacher (albeit elementary) I was interested in the brief moments we get with VP Vernon and Carl, the custodian. Their interaction in the basement when Carl catches Vernon going through confidential files is very interesting to me. A big question I had when the film ended was, “Will Vernon learn anything from this?” He’s such an angry character, and the film presents this anger coming from Bender’s humiliation of him in front of the other kids. If that is purely the case, then he’s a one-dimensional character, but there are a few character beats that I believe read as Vernon giving into his frustration that Bender won’t get with the program for his own benefit.
The Breakfast Club is by no means a perfect movie, and I don’t think you’ll be surprised by the resolution. This is still a mainstream studio picture, so we aren’t allowed to have a story that ends ambiguously or melancholy. I couldn’t help but think a modern remake handled with the same sensitivity but more diverse and allowing itself to not finish things neatly. I think the film would definitely have benefited from the presence of at least one non-white character. A modern remake would also likely include an LGBTQ character, which the story would also be better off having. From a contemporary point of view for all the cliques represented, our characters are still pretty homogenous.