The Breakfast Club (1985)

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Director: John Hughes

Producers: John Hughes, Ned Tanen, Michelle Manning

Writer: John Hughes (screenplay)

Photography: Thomas Del Ruth

Music: Gary Chang, Wang Chung, Keith Forsey, Simple Minds

Cast: Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Michael Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Paul Gleeson

When it came to cranking out instant classics on the teenage scene, nobody did it better than John Hughes. In just 25 months between the summers of ’84 and ’86, Hughes wrote and directed an unrivaled string of teen movies — Sixteen Candles (1984), Weird Science (1985), The Breakfast Club (1985) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), not to mention writing Pretty in Pink (1986) for director Howard Deutch. Together, these films both captured and defined what it meant to be a youth in the 1980s. Invariably, everyone has a different personal favorite (mine is Ferris Bueller), but looking back a quarter-century later, the most important may just be The Breakfast Club.

Recently voted by Entertainment Weekly as the #1 Greatest High School Movie of All Time, The Breakfast Club explores a theme of popularity divides that rings all the more true in today’s Mean Girls world of cyber bullying. It does so with a simple, yet effective premise where five teenagers, each of a different social stereotype, must share a room for Saturday detention and spend time with peers they otherwise never would:

  • The Jock: Andy Clark (Emilio Estevez) is a wrestler pressured to perform by his hardass “glory days” father.
  • The Brain: Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall) is a straight-A student who carries a fake-ID not for booze, but so that he can vote.
  • The Criminal: John Bender (Judd Nelson) is a constant juvenile troublemaker with a guillotine in his locker and problems at home.
  • The Princess: Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald) is a shoe-in for homecoming queen who has her own unique way of applying lipstick.
  • The Basketcase: Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) is a goth outcast who thinks it’s normal to shake her dandruff onto a doodle drawing to create a snow effect.

With such a set-up, the characters, rather than events, become the subject of the film, allowing the chemistry of the fine teen actors to flourish. It certainly didn’t hurt that Hall and Ringwald had just finished co-starring together in Sixteen Candles, or that the trio of Estevez, Nelson and Sheedy were simultaneously shooting another film together, Joel Schumacher’s St. Elmo’s Fire (1985). Whatever the reason, this group just clicked and took the teen pop culture scene by storm. Along with Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy and Demi Moore, the collection of Ringwald, Hall, Estevez, Nelson and Sheedy became known as The Brat Pack — an ode to The Rat Pack — and their emotional development throughout The Breakfast Club remains the stuff of feel-good movie gold.

As expected, their characters start out totally withdrawn from one another, taking a full 26 minutes to even exchange names. Gradually, they begin to interact, albeit in hostile ways, functioning around Bender as the foul-mouthed, show-off antagonist. Quarrels ensue, fighting words are exchanged and some of the greatest ’80s lingo is left to quote — “Two hits, me hitting you and you hitting the floor;” “Did I stutter?,” “Wastoid” and “Eat my shorts,” the latter of which was later popularized by Bart Simpson. It’s all accurately juvenile — complete with pot smoking, boners and middle fingers — but as always, Hughes has serious thematic undertones up his sleeve.

This goal, obviously, is to break down the social patterns that permeate high schools, the “classroom class systems,” if you will. His method follows the same way Sidney Lumet changed juror perceptions in 12 Angry Men (1957), by placing them all in one room, in this case the library of Shermer High School, and offering a switchblade homage to Lumet. In a way, Hughes transforms “Five Angry Students” into “The Breakfast Club.

Jamming them in a room together from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Hughes forces his characters to interact, and thus, forces them to bond. The first step comes in a shared hatred for hardass principal, Richard Vernon (Paul Gleeson), an adult figure who’s mad at the world, out of touch with his students and dresses like Barry Manilow. Soon, the Fab Five discover that their similarities run much deeper than their differences, from pressures at home (abusive and vicarious-living parents), to pressures of reputation (the need to keep straight As, the need to stay popular). Granted, these characterizations are borderline caricatures, with a contrived and schmaltzy presentation, but the themes beneath them are as real as it gets, narrated by Hall in a reflective essay:

“Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to spend an entire Saturday in detention for whatever we did wrong. What we did was wrong, but we think you’re crazy to tell us to write an essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms, the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal, correct? That’s the way we all saw each other at 7:00 this morning. We were brainwashed.”

Such a statement is an indictment against those faculty and parents who perpetuate the same divisions through a misguidance that says, “This is how it was when I was in high school, so this is how it’s going to be.” As the Breakfast Club exits the school to the lyrics of “Don’t You Forget About Me” — written for the movie soundtrack before topping the pop charts for the band Simple Minds — Hughes asks teen audiences to stop disrespecting each other and challenges adults to break the precedent with better teaching and parenting. Fist pump. Freeze frame. Play soundtrack. Roll credits.

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