The Breakfast Club (1985)

the breakfast club

“When you grow up, your heart dies.”

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Mike’s rating: Five out of five Neo-maxie zoom dweebies. (Extra points for the metal-head’s correct usage of the words “demented” and “condescend”).

Mike’s review: High school is, like it or not, the place where childhood ends. The realities of the inherent cruelty and brutality of life brought sharply into focus at a time when your perceptions are still rudimentary but your emotions are steadily becoming more complicated and confusing. Add to that the raging hormones and the near-addictive pull to social interaction with all the inherent stress that brings and it’s no wonder teenagers start to get moody and dramatic.

John Hughes’ films did something in the ’80s rather unheard-of for the era: he depicted these adolescents as complicated human beings with their own struggles, faults and inner narratives–as opposed to one-note stereotypes who main focus was “getting laid”. Nowhere was this on more prominent display than in this 1985 slice-of-life melodramedy, which in the space of 90 minutes deals with issues as complex and diverse as peer pressure, grade obsession, slut-shaming, parental abuse, bullying, mental illness, sexual assault and suicide — to admittedly varying degrees of success.

It’s hard to gauge the influence of Hughes’ magnum opus, but the fact that all of these issues remain achingly poignant speaks volumes about the universal appeal and timelessness of the film. For its enduring relevance alone, The Breakfast Club is rightly considered a classic.

The plot is deceptively barebones: we’re watching a group of teenagers over an afternoon spent in detention. At first everybody adheres steadfastly to the tropes of their clique; The troubled metalhead is a brash, vulgar instigator, the rich girl is vapid and image-obsessed, the jock is a meathead, the nerd is a goody-two shoes, and Ally Sheedy’s proto-goth Allison just hides in her over-sized hooded jacket and acts weird, not speaking until a half-hour into the movie.

The kids start talking, and things get interesting. The “criminal” is kind of disarmingly eloquent, the “princess” is kind of sweet, the “brain”, for all his book smarts, is kind of a bonehead, the “basket case” is an artistic soul whose chronic lies seem to be calculated to provoke introspection, the “athlete” is inwardly rebelling against the toxic masculinity expected of him and it’s eating him alive. As the day goes on, and the kids take full advantage of administrative neglect, presuppositions are questioned, prejudices are confronted, motives are examined and souls are bared (also weed is smoked). By the end of the day we’re watching five people who realize that they might actually like the people they’ve been stuck with better than the people occupying their respective social stations, and contemplating the frightening ramifications of that.

Paul Gleason is the sixth star of the film as Mr. Vernon; a typical pompous authority figure who long ago stopped thinking of these kids as human beings. You start out disliking him, but you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him as Bender mercilessly dresses him down, taking endless shots at Mr. Vernon’s clothes, his competency, his imagined coolness, in an ongoing attempt to undermine his authority. Vernon does an admirable job of keeping his cool and asserting authority in the face of the endless mocking. The day progresses and ever so slowly the facade of his professionalism cracks as Bender gets under his skin and he gets more condescending, petty and mean. It’s a steady and gradual downward spiral, but when Vernon gets Bender alone in a supply closet and threatens to beat him up in a super-tense scene, the shock is still palpable.

In 2018, more than a few script choices by John Hughes in his ’80s teen phase have been rightly put under the microscope and found to be troubling (I’m looking at you, Long Duk Dong). The Breakfast Club is no exception. Allison’s out of nowhere makeover to become more classically pretty (what was wrong with her before?) suddenly drawing the attention of the cute jock boy is somewhat vomit-inducing. Brian’s contemplation of suicide is glossed over and rather quickly dismissed.

In a scene that’s played for laughs (and features a shot up Molly Ringwald’s skirt) John Bender unapologetically commits sexual assault only for his victim to fall in love and kiss him at the end of the movie. While the first instinct might be to dismiss these choices as “it was a different time”, and just enjoy the film for what it was and is, I think it’s a better response to instead point out these cringe-worthy moments and talk about them and the kind of society that they were allowed to flourish in. Those conversations are worth having.

A few words about the movie’s framing device: The opening narration illustrates the movie’s emotional arc perfectly; establishing the stereotype of each of our detention-going miscreants in short order and then just as abruptly chastising the very idea that these labels define the kids they’ve been assigned to, right away differentiating TBC from a million other “High School” movies. As we’ll learn by the end of the film this narration is actually part of a longer essay—a pointed middle-finger to the abusive authority figure, punctuated with a delightful non-sequitur. This movie taught us that we are all more than just the simplest terms with the most convenient definitions, and the more we take the time to delve into the inner workings of the people we interact with, the more our similarities start to outweigh our differences.

That, and don’t mess with the bull. You’ll get the horns.

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Don’t you forget about the fact that this dude diddled a teenage girl.

Intermission!

The scene in which all characters sit in a circle on the floor in the library and tell stories about why they were in detention was improvised

Judd Nelson was method on this film, staying in character off-camera, even bullying Molly Ringwald. John Hughes nearly fired him but, ironically, Paul Gleason defended Nelson telling Hughes he was just trying to get into character. Hughes would later state that he would never work with Nelson again.

John Cusack auditioned repeatedly to play John Bender

Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, and Ally Sheedy all went on to portray college graduates in St. Elmo’s Fire later the same year.

Some scenes were filmed at John Hughes alma mater, Glenbrook North High School. “The Breakfast Club” was a local euphemism for kids in detention.

Paul Gleason played Vernon again in the parody, Not Another Teen Movie, once again presiding over detention–in the “Anthony Michael” Hall. Molly Ringwald also had a cameo.

Groovy Quotes

Brian Johnson: Saturday, March 24, 1984. Shermer High School, Shermer, Illinois, 60062. Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. What we did *was* wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make us 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, in 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 saw each other at 7:00 this morning. We were brainwashed.

Andrew: What do you need a fake I.D. for?
Brian: So I can vote.

Andrew: We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.

Claire Standish: Look, I’m not going to discuss my private life with total strangers.
Allison Reynolds: It’s kind of a double edged sword isn’t it?
Claire Standish: A what?
Allison Reynolds: Well, if you say you haven’t, you’re a prude. If you say you have, you’re a slut. It’s a trap.

Brian Johnson: (after hearing about Bender’s home life) Is that for real?
John Bender: You wanna come over sometime?

John: Hey, how come Andrew gets to get up? If he gets up, we’ll all get up. It’ll be anarchy!

John Bender: Does Barry Manilow know that you raid his wardrobe?

John Bender: Uh, Dick? Excuse me, Rich. Will milk be made available to us?
Andrew Clark: We’re extremely thirsty, sir.
Claire Standish: I have a really low tolerance for dehydration.
Andrew Clark: I’ve seen her dehydrate, sir. It’s pretty gross.

Andrew: Speak for yourself.
Bender: Do you think I’d speak for you? I don’t even know your language.

Bender: I wanna be just like you. I figure all I need is a lobotomy and some tights!

John Bender: Don’t you ever talk about my friends! You don’t know any of my friends. You don’t look at any of my friends, and you certainly wouldn’t *condescend* to speak to any of my friends. So you just stick to the things you know: shopping, nail polish, your father’s BMW, and your poor, rich drunk mother in the Caribbean!

Brian Johnson: Did you know without trigonometry, there’d be no engineering?
Bender: Without lamps, there’d be no light.

Principal Richard Vernon: The next time I have to come in here I’m crackin’ skulls.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Lucas
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower
  • Pretty In Pink

2 comments

  1. Hey, Mike, just wanted to say it’s good to finally see someone else posting here besides me. I would have commented on one of your last two, but unfortunately, both are movies that I’m pretty sure I’ll be seeing before long, and I tend to get a little spoiler-phobic when that happens.

    I have seen The Breakfast Club, though. It’s been a while, but from what I remember of it, yeah, your take on the film sounds pretty accurate.

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