The Breakfast Club, which premiered in Los Angeles on Feb. 7, 1985, may be the finest movie about American high school life ever made.
Regarded as one of the seminal films of the ’80s, John Hughes‘ movie is a compendium of the anxieties, confusion and joys of teenage existence. It made Hughes a star, and he’d go on to write or direct other classics like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Home Alone, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It also helped launch the careers of Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy. But its most lasting effect was to create a template for taking the inner life of its characters seriously.
The force of the film comes from its reduced simplicity. Five students are remanded to detention in the library of their high school one Saturday. They each represent a stereotype: John Bender (Nelson) is the bad boy, Claire Standish (Ringwald) is the rich society girl, Andrew Clark (Estevez) is the jock, Brian Johnson (Hall) is a nerd and Allison Reynolds (Sheedy) is the weirdo.
They’re supervised by Assistant Principal Vernon (Paul Gleason), a bullying disciplinarian who gives them only one thing to do over the nine hours they’re to sit quietly in the library: write a 1,000-word essay on who they think they are. The only other person they have significant interactions with is Carl Reed (John Kapelos), a janitor who – it’s briefly revealed in a shot in the opening montage – was the high school’s Man of the Year in 1969.
Faced with long hours of boredom, the kids initially fall into antagonizing each other over their status and hobbies. But as the day passes, spurred on by Bender’s confrontations with Vernon, they begin to develop some solidarity and eventually end up baring their hearts to one another. The movie closes with a note that Brian writes on behalf of all of them, in lieu of the actual essay assignment, which says that during the day “what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, and a princess and a criminal.”
One thing that saves this all from melodrama is the cheerful clarity of its vision. One of the films The Breakfast Club is often compared to is Mike Nichols’s 1966 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (originally a play by Edward Albee), in which four characters work through the impossible difficulties of their lives by talking to and tormenting one another over the course of a single drunken night. But in the earlier film, the adults are looking back with a mordant bitterness at what has shaped them into the wrecks they’ve become, while in Hughes’ movie the teenagers are struggling toward that future, burdened by the world around them but somehow still hopeful. They are not stupid – they see that they’ll eventually become adults and may lose good deal of the magic they feel – but they cannot help but be thrilled at the possibilities that lie ahead of them.
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This hopefulness is also set against a surprisingly rasping depiction of the cruelties involved in high school life. Hughes’ screenplay, in addition to being full of memorable scenes, adeptly distills the way kids decimate one another into a few terse lines of dialogue or even a withering glance. Bender’s mockery of his weaker and less cool peers is under-girded by his humiliation at being poor; Claire’s smug superiority at being one of the upper-class set is laid low by how easily the others pinpoint her self-absorption. Each character is prey to his or her own specific brands of insecurity and stress, and the story makes it clear that one of the tragedies of their lives is the degree to which all of this is externally imposed, especially by their parents.
It’s often said The Breakfast Club is unduly harsh in its depiction of the adult world. There’s certainly more conflict between children and their parents portrayed here than you’d would see in a contemporary movie. “When you grow up,” says Allison at one point, “your heart dies.” But this sentiment is set against the film’s most unexpected scene, in which Assistant Principal Vernon and Carl drink a beer together and argue about the kids. They each take one side of the great debate that older generations have always had, and will always have, about younger generations.
Vernon insists the kids have changed and have become more arrogant with every passing year. They’ve “turned on” him. Carl, who quips that when he was young he wanted to be John Lennon, counters that it’s not the kids but Vernon himself who has changed. If Vernon were 16, Carl asks, what would he think of himself now? The film pivots on the insight contained in this debate, which is that there’s no right answer. Sometimes the Man of the Year becomes a janitor, and sometimes the idealistic teacher becomes the despotic assistant principal; often kids grow up and become parents who pass along to their children all kinds of baggage, either by emulating their own parents or trying to do the opposite.
The Breakfast Club is not hostile to adults. Unlike many lesser movies, it actually takes seriously the unavoidable linkage between the worlds of adolescence and maturity. High school kids will eventually become adults. Perhaps even – although they desperately hope not to – the kinds of adults who make their lives almost impossibly difficult.
This necessity of aging is touched on by all the great teenage movies, from Rebel Without a Cause to American Graffiti to Big Wednesday to Lady Bird. But the magic of The Breakfast Club is that it captures so clearly the deep — and often forgotten — importance of the teenagers themselves. Each generation’s desperate, doomed hope that they will be different is not presented here as condescension or as a tragedy. Instead, this hope is seen as a constant reminder of the possibility of life, an acknowledgement of human potential that each new wave of high school kids takes up as it passes through those years, reminding the rest of us of its existence.