Before collaborating with John Candy, John Hughes was quickly becoming the voice of a teenage generation, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Pretty in Pink (1986) . Today, the teen movie can become easily formulaic. The shy, isolated teenager whose life is transformed through a series of events. The riotous group of friends who drink, fuck and party, whilst raising a middle finger to the law. The Breakfast Club combines these things into something unique.
How The Breakfast Club became such an iconic film seems improbable. The film is intentionally minimalist, restricted to one building, set over seven or eight hours and focused around five characters (with additional roles for the teacher, the janitor and the kids’ parents). I found half an hour detention difficult enough – why would anyone want to sit through a ninety minute detention, let alone ninety minutes in the cinema of characters talking to each other? It could just about work as a stageplay.
(Fun fact – my GCSE Drama piece was originally going to be an adaptation of this, but when we found our group had no girls, I ended up playing Gordie in Stand By Me and got a measly C.)
Although the film is known for its soundtrack, even the soundtrack is kept to a minimum – brought in at particular moments, when the rigid boredom of the library is penetrated. Scenes breathe with minimal dialogue but the clicking of pens and feet on the floor. For any studio to have any confidence financing that – and an audience responding to that – seems remarkable. Films like 12 Angry Men (1957), known for their use of limited space, light up fans of 1950s cinema and Criterion, but this is a mainstream, critically acclaimed film that everybody knows.
The Breakfast Club would not have worked without the performances of its characters. On the face of it, its characters are stereotypes. Yet they are grounded in reality, and you can just about see them as real people, if a little exaggerated. A brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Their individual quirks are communicated as obviously as in their own lunches, from sushi to XXL portions.
But even these terms can be a bit simplistic. A basket case, or an isolated girl with both artistic talent and her own anxieties? A criminal, or a rock music loving, homophobic, sexual harrasser jackass?
Behind these broad character types that litter casting calls and every spec script are real humans with real emotion. We begin to understand these characters as they begin to understand each other, with their own family issues and pressures to be the best people they can be. Brian, on the face of it, is a dork who cares about getting work done and being involved in physics club. But this strips back to a person who emulates Bender’s sassy rapport with Vernon, smokes weed and isn’t just the perfect image of 1950s America. By finding a friendship with Claire, we see that behind Allison’s long hair and sugar and crisp sandwiches is a pretty girl with a newfound confidence and a beautiful dress.
This same technique is applied to the adults as well. Vernon is a hard-line principal, and a mythical figure to the students who don’t know him as anything but a principal. He’s proud of his career and how he is shaping future generations, but this image of himself is removed to reveal his fear for how the next generation will look after him, and deconstructed by the janitor. This has been explored in better ways in other films – Dan in Half Nelson (2006); Henry in Detachment (2011) – but the focus here is squarely on the students rather than the teachers.
The Breakfast Club is a lesson in understanding people complexly. But it can also be read as more than that. Sitting here as a university student, sitting in the library for eight hours on a Saturday doesn’t sound like a nightmare to me, it sounds like a productive weekend. Brian’s parents are even advocating he makes the most of the time. But then we have high school students, forced to sit through classes they don’t want to take, learning very little they will actually use, whilst teachers sit around just as frustrated as the students themselves. Brian makes a good critique of the very act of essay writing in the essay he produces for the group:
“But we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are.”
All five characters and transformed over the course of the film – because learning is done through social interaction, not the classroom itself. Teenage identity is a fluid thing rather than a marker of future identity, despite how Vernon sees Bender’s criminal future.
High school is a joke, and this film helps bring back some difficult memories. Rather than add to the “teenagers go wild and fuck each other” film genre, it deconstructs the whole toxic culture of holding sexuality up as a trophy and virginity as a sacred thing. Allison and Claire discuss this double standard when applied to girls, but it’s a universal thing that I can look back at as an asexual kid and thank God that this whole culture doesn’t completely carry over to adulthood.
Perhaps the reason for its success is because it’s so relatable. I see shades of myself in Brian, but I also see shades of my teenage self in Allison’s insular yet creative self. I knew girls who were like Claire; I knew sporty kids who were like Andy; I knew homophobic sexist dickwad bullies like Bender. Each viewer can project themselves onto a different character. There is no singular protagonist, and there is no indiscriminate, identical group of friends.
But looking back a couple of years after high school ended, even the people I knew in high school (that I still have some contact with) are completely different. By the end of it, everyone understands they may never see each other again, and head off on their own separate ways. This melding of different cliques together into one whole is possible – it was always temporary.
Yet I still feel like this is a film that needs to be watched around high school. In high school – as a meta, immersive experimental art piece, with clocks still ticking in the background, and rows of chairs ahead.
It still holds up in adulthood – but it just isn’t the same.