Remembering the Breakfast Club
The Taken Cannoli
Let’s do an experiment. Step one; shove five people who appear to have absolutely nothing in common into one room for ninety-seven minutes. We’ll have one jock, one “princess”, one “brain”, one “basket-case” and throw in a “criminal” just for good measure. Step two; watch them argue, dance, and unload their emotional baggage in attempt to relate to each other. Now, what do you get? (Hint: it’s not a reality show). You get one of the most iconic films to ever grace pop culture, the 1985 John Hughes masterpiece, The Breakfast Club.
“In the simplest terms and most convenient definitions”, The Breakfast Club is a movie about five high schoolers that spend a day in detention together. At first they practically despise each other, but as the day unfolds they each let their guards down, revealing how underneath their labels they all face similar issues of neglect, and all would just like to be validated. I guarantee that the actual film is a lot less cliché than its simplistic synopsis makes it out to be. It’s a movie that makes you giggle at the sight of five divergent teens bonding over a joint in the school library. It’s a movie that forces you to side with a delinquent boy when a treacherous school Principle secretly threatens him. It’s a movie that unexpectedly gnaws at your emotions, so much so that you have no choice but to “pull a John Bender,” and raise your fist in alliance as the credits roll. You cannot deny that The Breakfast Club is a classic.
I’m sure an entire room of cinephiles virtually regurgitated at that last line, but I stand by it. Yes, the film has received a less-than-admirable reputation for being “one of those Brat Pack movies,” but it’s much more than that. And although I would never place him in a category of the greatest filmmakers of all time, John Hughes had an indisputable knack for capturing the often overlooked but authentic struggles of being a teen.
The film opens with lyrics from David Bowie’s 1972 song Changes, presented on a black title card while Simple Minds’ famous theme song “Don’t You Forget About Me” plays. The Bowie lyrics on screen read:
And these children that you spit on,
As they try to change their world,
Are immune to your consultations,
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.
The words quickly shatter, breaking away to the obligatory establishing shot of Shermer High School, Illinois. This sudden transition demonstrates Hughes’ talent of balancing sober situations with a comedic flare. Through the Bowie quote (brought to his attention by actress Ally Sheedy) and the Simple Mind song, Hughes highlights the film’s major themes of neglect and validation. In less than thirty seconds the film’s message is artfully divulged: these kids, though forsaken, are aware of the injustice surrounding them. And I for one applaud Hughes for having the courage to take teen problems seriously.
The Breakfast Club’s fresh-faced ensemble cast gives remarkably convincing performances in their extremely relatable roles. One by one they arrive at the school’s parking lot. The first is the stylish, moneyed, popular girl Claire Standish, played by notorious redhead teen queen, Molly Ringwald. Claire, who is comfortably seated in her father’s pricey Mercedes, snobbishly exclaims, “I can’t believe you can’t get me out of this…It’s not like I’m a defective or anything.” What a personality! Next is Brian Johnson, the scrawny school nerd and official “brain” of the bunch, played by the innocent looking Anthony Michael Hall. Brian timidly endures his mother’s difficult demands in the front seat of her car: “Get in there and use the time to your advantage.” “Mom,” he replies, “We’re not supposed to study.” “Well Mister, you figure out a way to study!” How’s that for support?
A budding Emilio Estevez is Andrew Clark, the idolized school wrestler. He sits in his macho father’s truck, wearing his letterman jacket, with his head surprisingly lowered in response to his dad’s reproach: “You wanna blow your ride? No school is gonna give a scholarship to a discipline case!” Talk about “no pressure.” Arriving on foot through the parking lot is the complicated John Bender, magnificently portrayed by a young Judd Nelson. Dressed like the lovechild of a flannel-clothed homeless person and a punk rocker, Bender makes a fearless entrance by apathetically crossing the lot and almost getting hit by a car. Dauntless! The gothic and eerie Alison who is competently played by Ally Sheedy, exits said car. Her relationship to her parents is awkward at best and devastating at worst. As she attempts to bid her parents farewell, they drive off speedily. She is left in the parking lot alone. Cue my heart breaking.
Hughes borrows from Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men by filming the majority of the movie in one room. Yet due to the wise angles, appealing framing, and clever cuts, the film possess the creative range of Hitchcock’s riveting Dial M For Murder, which also had only one set. The five students assemble in the library where they’re each given an assignment to write about “Who you think you are” by Principal Vernon, played by the master of character acting, Paul Gleason. Hughes gives these misfits a common enemy, an adult who represents the establishment that disregards them. The students also benefit from the presence of Carl the janitor (played by John Kapelos), who acts as sort of a guardian angel type: “the eyes and ears of the institution.” Hughes’ creates this disparity between adults to show that much like the teen world, the adult world is full of complexity. And thus boom! One stereotype is already deconstructed.
A noticeable spark is brought to the scenes by all the actors, ensuring there is never a dim or overly clustered moment on screen. The famed “eat my shorts scenem” in which Vernon threatens a belligerent Bender while the other students uncomfortably watch and comically interject, is a good example of the vivaciousness the actors exhibited. Vernon makes an unsuccessful attempt to prop a heavy door open–a door which Bender has unscrewed to keep it shut. Vernon recruits the help of the jock, Andrew, and Bender yells out the amusing lines, “If he gets up, we’ll all get up. It’ll be anarchy.” After the two fail and Bender wittily dissuades the Principal’s actions (“I think violating fire codes and endangering the lives of children will be unwise at this juncture in your career sir”), Vernon is furious because he has been humiliated.
The hilarious atmosphere transforms into a restless one as Vernon brow-beats Bender, “The next screw that falls out is gonna be you.” But the real nerve-racking moment is when Bender indifferently says, “Eat my shorts.” The scene escalates when Vernon increases Bender’s days in detention, as the other kids fearfully try to prod him out of his indifference. Nelson’s eyes, however, do most of the talking. They’re able to reveal a world of feeling, allude to Bender’s troubling past, and help you understand that there is reason behind his brash behavior. The scene ends on a chilling note. Vernon paints a displeasing picture of “John Bender in ten years” and Bender yells an expletive tastefully highlighted by a heavy guitar chord as Vernon leaves. This leaves the viewer feeling uneasy, but is in perfect keeping with the film’s focus on the intensity of teen angst.
Hands down, Bender, the rambunctious stirrer of the pot, is my favorite character. There’s a theory which suggests that in all of Shakespeare’s’ plays, there was always a character that represented the writer himself. I believe this theory holds true for Hughes and the character of Bender. They both share the same name, for one thing. Through him, Hughes’ more skillful and daring ideas are given life; Bender smoothly brings up edgy themes of child abuse and sexual exploration that were hardly ever touched in prior films of the teen genre. “It’s (a bruise) about the size of a cigar” or the scandalous, “Calvin’s in a ball, on the front seat past eleven on a school night?” But what I love about Bender is Nelson’s potent portrayal. Without a doubt, Nelson steals practically every scene of the movie. His acting technique of striking matches, ripping pages out of books, or drawing knives, produces a dynamic and unpredictable energy that is reminiscent of a young Pacino. Nelson gives a completely stellar performance!
This is not to say I did not enjoy the other actors. On the contrary, the most impactful scene of the movie involves all five players. The characters are contemplative and seated on the library floor as they come down from their high. This scene is momentous due to the actors’ heartfelt deliveries, and Hughes’ intimate framing. In a semicircle, the five finally divulge their personal feelings and reasons for being sanctioned. We learn that the wrestling giant has a consciousness after he admits the guilt he felt when bullying a boy weaker than him out of peer pressure. The princess doesn’t have it all; her parents use her merely as a tool against each other. The “basket-case” is simply lonely due to an “unsatisfying home life.” But the greatest shock of all is learning the unsuspecting geek Brian has a devastating suicidal disposition because he fears failing Shop Class.
The cast exquisitely pulls off this steady paced, therapeutic scene with mirthful delivery of lines like “I can tape people’s buns together” to gut wrenching ones like “They found a gun in my locker.” Or Hughes’ most prophetic line, considering his eventual death from a heart attack at age 59: “When you grow up your heart dies.” The scene was incredibly personal thanks to the sensible combination of high-angled shots peering down at the five huddled together and eye level shots of them in the frame. Their formation is forever plastered in my mind like a beloved album cover. Hughes’ sophisticated panning (having the audacity to go behind an actors head), as well as one long unbroken shot as the actors relay their monologues, connects you to the moment. You feel like you’re sitting right next to these characters, as Hughes himself was during filming. In the best way possible, this scene is the most spooky, anti-climactic and yet climactic scene of any movie I’ve seen. It sticks out like a sore thumb.
Unfortunately, The Breakfast Club falls flat regarding the extent of its character development. I understand the goal of the film is to demolish high school tropes, which it does quite well, but the film lacks adequate character resolutions. The ending seems rushed and not completely thought out. Almost all our pivotal characters end up romantically involved by the end of the day, except the geek, of course. Brian ends up in love with the assigned essay, which he completes for the whole group. It is uncertain whether they will all remain friends on Monday at school, but I prefer that uncertainty. Despite this dissatisfying resolve, the final shot of the film ultimately reaffirms my adoration. John Bender walks onto the football field with Claire Standish’s diamond earring (which she gave to him) in his ear. And as “Don’t You Forget About Me” plays in the background, Bender lifts his fist in the air, not because he got the girl, not because all five will be friends for ever, but because just for one day they were all validated. That is a feeling you can never neglect.
Let’s face it, through his films’ relatable characters, use of new wave music, and eye for voguish fashion, John Hughes basically invented teen culture during the 80s. Anytime you hear someone utter, “Eat my shorts” or you give a friend a tote embroidered with the quote “We’re all pretty bizarre” you subconsciously applaud the genius of this 1985 feature. This film helps remind you that some things are popular for good reason. Consequently, 30 years after its release, The Breakfast Club’s sincerity and pertinence justifies its status as the unofficial blueprint of practically every good teen movie ever made.