display | more...

And these children that you spit on,
as they try to change their worlds are
immune to your consultations.
They're quite aware of what they're going through...
David Bowie, "Changes"

John Hughes' flawed masterpiece The Breakfast Club opens with these telling words of youth and rebellion. The recipe was simple enough: Add 5 high school clich├ęs, toss them in Saturday detention together, stir slowly. What Hughes ended up with was a telling message of real life on its own terms; it is the rarest of instances when form breaks function, but The Breakfast Club captures it marvelously on film.

The Characters

Without a doubt, it is the characters who make the film work. The 5 main characters' personalities as a whole encompass the entire spectrum of human interaction and behavior. The minor characters provide a silent catalyst for each of the personalities to expand and develop as the film progresses.

You see us as you want to see us
In the simplest terms
and the most convenient definitions.
You see us as ...

a brain ...

Anthony Michael Hall's Brian is quiet and introverted. He's very attentive (dutifully adding up the detentions Bender receives for his insolence) and is very appreciative of authority (he's constantly worried about getting in trouble with Vernon). He excels in virtually all aspects of school - he's a member of the physics club, Latin club, and math club - with the strange exception of shop (more on this later). He is, in short, a nerd, and the director-created goal for Brian is to "loosen up" - to learn that not all risks are created equal.

ANDREW
Why do you have a fake ID?

BRIAN
So I can vote!

an athlete ...

Andrew, played eruditely and rather woodenly by Emilio Estevez, is the typical jock of the high school scene: tough, a bit reserved, stubborn, and of course, highly popular. He consistently stands up to Bender's innuendo and attitude (nearly causing two fights), and he shows surprising spunk whenever Vernon is exerting his authority (using the word "sir" as a thinly-veiled insult). We see at every turn that Andrew has high expectations placed on him, especially by his father ("you don't want to screw your ride, do you?") Andrew suffers in a way from the effects of peer pressure (often in terrifyingly twisted ways), and the goal placed upon him by Hughes is to be able to accept things on their own terms - to not filter them through his goals and his success.

ANDREW
I'm not a winner because I wanna be one.
I'm a winner because I got strength and speed.
Kinda like a racehorse.

a basket case ...

Ally Sheedy, so charming and off-beat in most of her other major roles, gets a startling makeover into virtually all black for her role as Allison, the quiet quirky misfit of the group. The pinnacle of understatement, Allison's first spoken line (an exhortative "Ha!") occurs almost 30 minutes into the picture. From there, we only gather the faintest clues about her identity: she steals Brian's wallet, she dumps her purse out on a desk, she claims to have had sex with all kinds of men, she longs to run away from home, and she in general provokes the others into uncomfortable revelations. Allison is the product of the unattentive home, where intrigue is regularity - her director-goal, then, is to lighten up - to join the real world as a participant instead of a cynical observer.

ALLISON
It's unavoidable, it just happens.

CLAIRE
What happens?

ALLISON
When you grow up, your heart dies.

a princess ...

Molly Ringwald, fresh off her debut John Hughes film Sixteen Candles, now switched roles from the unknown high school wallflower to play the popular girl Claire. From the beginning, she expresses her distaste for detention and all of its implications ("it's not like I'm a defective!") She and Andrew know each other from their social circles, and they band together at first. Claire is dominated by the idea of distinct cultural separation. She is the only person in the movie who explicitly uses the group names ("jocks", "nerds", "burners") and she admits that after the detention, she probably won't be seen with the others at school. She is constantly teased throughout the movie for her Madonna-Whore complex - does she or doesn't she? Claire's goal from Hughes in the movie is to exert herself as a free thinker - to move beyond a world of black and white into a world with shades of meaning.

CLAIRE
You know what I wish I was doing?

BENDER
Op, watch what you say, Brian here is a cherry.

BRIAN
A cherry?

CLAIRE
I wish I was on a plane to France.

and a criminal.

Ironically, John Cusack was in the early running for the role of John Bender, but Judd Nelson fought hard and won the role shortly before shooting began. He is by far the most captivating character on screen - it might be his intense eyes, his smug smile, or his picture perfect one-liners ("So, will it be a ... white wedding?") - and he is the character that filters out most of the bullshit between the other characters. He *is* a criminal, tearing up books in the library, shuffling pot from his locker to the detention room, and threatening Andrew with a knife. He shows his sensitive side at times ("You got everything, and I got shit!") and his brief imaginary back-and-forth conversation between himself and his father (in which he plays his father) is funny and chilling at the same time. Bender the troubled teen is always in defensive mode - he lets out his emotions in a sardonic, detached manner. Bender's character arc, then, is to lower his guard - to let others read him and to express his emotions in a productive, positive way.

BENDER
What do you care what I think, anyway?
I don't even count, right?
I could disappear forever and it wouldn't make any difference.
I may as well not even exist at this school, remember?

Besides the 5 main characters and fleeting glimpses of Claire's dad, Brian's mom and little sister, and Andrew's dad, the only other major speaking character is Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason) as the overbearing assistant principal and the overseer of the Saturday detention, and Carl the janitor (John Kapelos). Vernon is somewhat typical as "The Man" in the picture - clueless, curt, and definitely suffering from a power trip. He harasses Bender constantly (although Bender frequently brings it on himself), and he provides mainly comic relief as the adult who just doesn't get it.

BENDER (to Vernon)
Does Barry Manilow know that you raid his wardrobe?

Carl, on the other hand, is the adult who never grew up. When Vernon asks him what he wanted to be when he got older, Carl says he "always wanted to be John Lennon," to which Vernon classically replies, "Don't be such a goof, Carl." Carl is the antithesis to Vernon - he is the self-proclaimed "ears and eyes of the institution." He is, in fact, a free thinker and fun spirit, and Hughes desperately tried to embody in Carl a happiness that can't be had by money or power or fame.

Plot Synopsis

With any luck, you've already watched this movie many times, and you can skip this portion. For the unenlightened, the story goes something like this:

All five of our protagonists arrive at the school. We learn right off the bat Claire is in detention for skipping school to go shopping. Vernon comes in and rather oddly states the theme of the movie explicitly by telling his inmates they will be writing a one-thousand word essay about who they think they are.

VERNON
Maybe you'll learn a little something about yourself.
Maybe you'll even--decide whether or not you care to return.

Brian begins writing his essay, while Bender makes a scene of himself (a coded cry for attention.) Andrew, Brian, Bender, and Claire all carry on telling conversations about clubs, peer groups, and popularity. Eventually, Bender removes a screw from the door to the library, which promptly slams shut.

Vernon storms in, tries to hold the door open and, failing, demands the missing screw. Bender finally hands it over, and then, with a mistimed "Eat my shorts", earns eight future detentions from Vernon. Vernon leaves, a stormy silence overtakes the room, and slowly all of the Club fall asleep.

After Vernon rudely awakens them for a trip to the bathroom, the conversation steers towards their home lives. Somewhat predictably, all of them have problems with their parents. Bender cracks wise about Claire's claim that she's not "that pristine", and Andrew sticks up for her. Vernon then lets them break for lunch.

If you can't tell already, this is a dialogue driven film. The entire film takes place at the high school, and most of that in the library. After Allison and Andrew go off to get Cokes, the group discusses, among other things, their lunches and Bender's family life ("Shut up bitch! Go fix me a turkey pot pie!"). Finally, some action! The group cautiously escapes the library to head to Bender's locker.

BRIAN (to Andrew)
What's the point in going to Bender's locker?

ANDREW
Beats me...

BRIAN
This is so stupid.
Why do you think, why are we risking getting caught?

ANDREW
I dunno...

BRIAN
So then what are we doing?

ANDREW
You ask me one more question and I'm beating the shit out of you!

When they arrive at Bender's locker, he grabs his stash of marijuana and the group heads back to the library. They're almost back when they spot Vernon at the end of a hall. After a long sequence of trying to escape, they run into a dead end. Bender, in a rare show of empathy, hides his stash in Brian's pants and then runs off in the opposite direction, making lots of noise. Vernon catches him playing basketball in the gym.

Vernon then drags Bender back to the library (where the others have made it safe) and we learn Bender pulled the fire alarm on Friday. Bender is placed in solitary in a small utility closet, but he escapes through the roof back to the library, and, after hiding from Vernon, the gang proceeds to smoke up.

More conversations go on, about life, sex, and drugs. Carl catches Vernon looking through confidential files in the basement, and charges him fifty bucks for his silence. Allison dumps her bag on a table, but refuses to discuss its contents, which suggest she's planning to run away. The group discusses what they would do for a million dollars ("drive naked to school" proves to be the popular choice) and then Claire is again attacked for her sexual ambiguity.

Andrew reveals he's in detention for taping a nerd's ass cheeks together. Despite the obvious humor in the situation, Andrew wells up in tears because he hates picking on the weak to prove his strength.

ANDREW
You know, sometimes, I wish my knee would give
and I wouldn't be able to wrestle anymore.
And he could forget all about me...

BENDER
I think your old man and my old man should get together and go bowling.

Next, we learn Brian is failing shop because the ceramic elephant lamp he was supposed to build won't turn on. The conversation shifts to the future: will they all still talk on Monday? Claire offers a hard truth, but the others aren't so sure. Finally, Brian admits why he is here: his imminent F in shop led him to bring a gun to school to kill himself. Unfortunately for him, it was a flare gun, which went off in his locker. Everyone starts laughing.

BRIAN
It's not funny...

Yes it is; fuckin' elephant was destroyed!

Then Allison tells them she's only there because she has "nothing better to do." Brian puts on some music, and the group dances the last dance of the day. Bender returns to his closet, Claire convinces Brian to write an essay for the whole group, and then proceeds to give Allison a makeover. Gone is the "black shit" under her eyes; Andrew is mesmerized by the new look. Claire goes to see Bender in the closet and kisses him. Brian is noticeably pleased with the paper he's written.

Time is up; they all leave, as Brian's voiceover reads aloud his paper. The final shot of Bender with his fist outstretched is a lasting image on the success of the film.

Review

John Hughes seemed to capture the teen aesthetic of the 1980s beautifully: maybe it was just that teen films of the past, such as Rebel Without A Cause, Beach Blanket Bingo, The Graduate, or even Saturday Night Fever had this condescending perspective of an adult behind the camera, as if to say, "See what our kids are doing?" The moralism was rampant, and there was little sensitivity in the treatment of adolescence.

Directors such as Hughes, Amy Heckerling, and Howard Deutch instead tried to revive their own high school days, adding sex and drugs and rock and roll, and plenty of angst. These things are almost standard fare for movies these days, but with TBC, it was a first. The movie never drags, mostly because of the crisp dialogue. Even 20 years after its creation, the movie is still overtly funny and emotional without being manipulative. The actors are all exceedingly mature for their age (Ringwald was only 16, and Hall 15 when the film was made), and for many of them, it is their shining moment in movie history.

Of course, you can't mention The Breakfast Club without mentioning its soundtrack. Interestingly enough, only four songs appear in the movie, but with "Don't You (Forget About Me)," the #1 single by Simple Minds, as its theme, and songs from Wang Chung, Karla DeVito, and Elizabeth Daily, it's impossible not to be drawn in by the pure pop and evocative joy of all of the tracks.

Some people will argue (rather unconvincingly) that the whole movie is contrived. And it's true in some vague regard: after all, your average day is hardly interesting enough to warrant a movie, no matter how many out-of-step characters you throw into the mix. It requires a bit of snappy dialogue, some plot contrivances, some one-dimensionality, and certainly, a bit of that good old suspension of disbelief to get into the movie, but the characters develop enough realism throughout the movie that nothing they do seems out of the ordinary. The movie itself was filmed almost entirely in chronological order: the actors themselves were emotionally spent by the end of the picture (Judd Nelson had particular problems with the cast and crew by staying in character off-camera.)

What really drives the movie is the seminal feeling that this is a frozen moment in time, this Saturday afternoon. Here the pretensions of peers and pressure are removed, and friendships and romance are formed, if somewhat uneasily. The movie eventually chalks itself up to the unanswerable question: "What happens Monday?" The film, understandably, is too clever to reveal the answer.

Strangely, the film received an R rating from the MPAA, limiting its audience to those 17 or over. Still, its universal quality to speak about the idiocy of institutionalized divisions and to get down to the real relationships between people on levels beyond their life's station has led it to become one of the most popular teen films of all time.

Trivia

  • Rick Moranis was originally slated to play Carl the janitor, but was fired for insisting on doing a Russian accent.
  • John Hughes has a brief non-speaking cameo as Brian's father picking him up at the end of the day.