From its opening citation—a line from David Bowie’s 1971 song “Changes,” about children being “quite aware of what they’re going through”—to its final, rebelliously jubilant freeze frame, The Breakfast Club makes no attempt to hide or even downplay its primary intention. This beloved 1985 dramedy from writer-director John Hughes condenses a yearbook’s worth of teenage angst and frustration into a few hours one Saturday afternoon, in suburban Illinois, when five distinct members of the student body are sentenced to detention for assorted offences. Instructed to compose an essay about who they think they are as people, the quintet instead engages in a contentious, often humorous, and eventually, cathartic session of individual and group introspection (and one of them actually does write the paper). The resulting film is one of the seminal features of the decade, an insightful and at times provocative look at the timeless torment that continues to plague young people the world over.
Set primarily in the library of a high school in Des Plaines (the same setting seen a year later in Hughes’ 1986 film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), The Breakfast Club is notable at the off for how economically it establishes its fundamental crisis. The five students assembled each embody enduring, though by now drastically outdated, character types, formulaic personalities like the iconoclast, John Bender (Judd Nelson), the pretty, popular rich girl, Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald), the nerdy introvert, Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall), the jock, Andy Clark (Emilio Estevez), and the weird loner, Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy). Placed under the strict and intolerant guardianship of assistant principal Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason), who undergoes his own related self-analysis, these five come from different backgrounds, represent different demographics, and embody the end result of dramatically different upbringings. They each have their quirks and inhibitions, but Hughes effectively takes these idiosyncrasies and uses them to further the progress of what becomes a transformative day for all; fleeting perhaps, but substantial for the time being.
It takes some time for the students to get past their initial tiffs, and some antagonisms last longer than others, just as some instances of attachment are more convincing and more interesting. Ringwald and Hall, both 16, had already worked with Hughes on Sixteen Candles (1984), and while none of the five actors were wholly untested (Judd was the least experienced, with just three prior films to his credit; he was also the oldest, at 25), the performances do waver, not so much as a whole, but from scene to scene, from moments of group purging to one-on-one revelations. After getting past disputes over casting (Ringwald wanted to play Allison and Estevez auditioned to play John), everyone is afforded ample opportunity to stand out, for better—Estevez’s single take confessional; Hall’s Richard Pryor impression and his clever improvisations—or worse—Nelson’s arrogant, rather tiring one-note schtick. In any case, each actor successfully earns their subsequent spot as a talented member of the so-called “Brat Pack.”
Although the individual scenes vary in terms of execution, there is a consistent tone throughout The Breakfast Club. Hughes progresses the story at a steady pace, giving it the feeling, especially early on, of a genuinely languid day with no rush. From that leisurely tempo, working to foster the film’s comparably unhurried, endearing sentimentality, the characters naturally (if not exactly realistically) come together, running and sliding on the floor in unison, dancing together, smoking pot together, whistling the march from The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) together, and, most tellingly of all, covering for each other, refusing to snitch when John gets up to no good no matter now repulsive he may be.
Hughes has a way of delicately honing in on secretive smiles and smirks, engendering these characters to the viewer and showing how they persuasively work on one another as well. At the same time, they are keenly aware of their lot in life, recognizing and generally accepting their timeworn position in the school hierarchy and identifying their own patented manners; “It’s all part of your image,” Andy tells John after the latter lays out his hard-luck case.
The Breakfast Club has a nice set-up, taking advantage of a constricted space and a condensed period of time (the minimal setting also helped with the film’s modest budget). The message is clear: Bad kids can be good, and the awkward kids are just like everyone else. Even the teachers, the film suggests in a minor note, aren’t always the unambiguous disciplinarians they appear to be. When principal Vernon closes the door after handing down two months of additional detention to John, he lets out an expressively exasperated sigh; he doesn’t like his job any more than the students do. The other adult in the picture, Carl the janitor (John Kapelos), makes sure Vernon knows that the kids haven’t changed since their day, the adults have. Or, put another way by Allison, “When you grow up, your heart dies.”
Discussing The Breakfast Club in one of the many supplemental features included on the Criterion Collection Blu-ray of the film, Diablo Cody (writer of Juno, 2007, and Young Adult, 2011) notes the way in which John Hughes could identify so intuitively with young people, an opinion echoed by those who worked with the then married, thirty-something filmmaker, remarking on his affection, his allowance of rehearsal time, and his acceptance of advantageous ad-libbing. Demonstrating what Cody says was Hughes’ attuned ear to “teenspeak,” the banter in The Breakfast Club can be as crude as it is witty.
It may be characteristic of the early 1980s, and overt nostalgia for the era is likely what has carried the film along all these years, but one has to marvel at how much of it is now decidedly un-PC (certainly by today’s social media standards, if not in the realities of modern youth). This includes some of the language, derogatory slurs in particular, and even trivial inclusions like the students all getting a soda for lunch. Although having two female characters is something of an achievement, today, one of the five would probably exemplify another underrepresented group: a different race, a gay student, etc. Most glaringly, as Molly Ringwald has laid out in recent articles, The Breakfast Club is at peak unease when it comes to John’s blatant sexual harassment, usually directed at Claire. And yet, be that as it may, it’s hard to fault the film itself or anyone involved (which isn’t what Ringwald set out to do anyway). Those were different times, and most films and some people have evolved.
What hasn’t changed are the film’s variations on archetypal personalities, seen countless times in American cinema; the stereotypical slots remain convenient categories for standard schoolhouse stories to this day. Additionally, young people still feel neglected and misunderstood, whether they really are or not, and the outside forces that condition these students are still considerable, as are the internal tensions. Again, this goes back to why The Breakfast Club is so relatable: It’s just clichéd enough to keep it universal. There is no doubt the film taps into something profound for many who see it, be it certain lines of dialogue—“What’s bizarre? I mean, we’re all pretty bizarre! Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.”—or the irresistible Simple Minds’ title song, “Don’t You (Forget About Me).”
The clothes, mannerisms, and expressions are dated to be sure, and the treatment of its subject matter now seems heavy-handed and a little too pat, but the legacy of The Breakfast Club manages to overcome its overly emotional finale and the more debatable aspects of its conclusion (does Allison sell out by getting dolled up?). These fickle teens are also shrewd, capable of observing their own social hypocrisies. As Brian points out, even after all they’ve gone through during this one traumatic day, will they really acknowledge each other on Monday? Or is it back to the same routine and the same clique (or lack thereof)? That realization, in turn, leads to the biggest defect of The Breakfast Club. For all its superficial insight—earnest, but still superficial—what is ultimately accomplished? Even as John raises his fist in the air, in a frozen posture of rousing defiance, what comes next? What are they really going to do? It brings to mind Marlon Brando’s quote from The Wild One (1953). Asked what he’s rebelling against, the juvenile dissident responds, “Whadda ya got?” Here, the question is, “What’s the point?”