FLASHBACK FLICKS: The Breakfast Club
“Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. But we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us - in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.
Does that answer your question?"
The Breakfast Club
In 1985, filmmaker John Hughes would introduce a film to the movie going public, directed at a generation of teenagers who succumbed to the pressure of putting themselves in the narrow-minded space of a “high school clique.” The idea being that you don’t decide where you fit in, the world does. To address this issue, John Hughes, the creative mastermind behind some of the 20th century’s greatest coming-of-age films like Sixteen Candles (1984), Weird Science (1985), and Pretty in Pink (1986), wrote a script depicting a Saturday high school detention revolving around five different characters, all from different social circles. What Hughes was writing and directing would become the indelible 80s classic that every person who ever walked the halls of a high school could identify with.
The premise is simple. High School. Five students. A brain. An athlete. A basket case. A Princess. A criminal. Saturday. March 24th. 1984. Detention. One assignment (or punishment, depending on how you look at it): Write an essay expressing who you are.
With the outlined theme of The Breakfast Club set into place, what we as a viewer experience for the next 95 minutes, is a world we are all too familiar with, which is perhaps what makes this film so appealing and after over 30 years, still stand apart from all other films that try to diagnosis the complexities of surviving in high school, and that really is the right word: surviving. Because when you are in high school, you think there is only these four walls that surround you. The outside world is your house, the places your friends hang out, and that is it. Nothing else exists and you are so consumed in how you are labeled in these four walls that any idea of a future self that exists beyond high school is dormant.
What Hughes does so well with this film is that each of the five characters is highlighted in some way. They each have their own storyline; and as the film unravels, we see through sometimes comedic and often too-familiar storytelling that each of these characters have struggles far beyond what others may see in passing. And in writing such complex yet realistic personas, Hughes forces you to identify with at least one of these characters because they are so honest in their humility.
Claire: The Princess.
Already recognized for her brilliant work as a socially awkward teenager in John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles a year before, Molly Ringwald plays a completely different character this time around. Claire is a wealthy, stylish, and what many would consider “stuck-up” girl who is the poster child for what it means to be popular. Her parents give her everything and when she enters a room, everyone takes notice of her.
Andy: The Athlete.
Emilio Estevez plays Andy, the all-star wrestler of the school. He roams the halls with his jock buddies, making fun of “geeks” and “nerds” and anyone who doesn’t belong to their group. He hangs around the same crowd as Claire, going to parties and being glorified for his skills as the state champion wrestler.
Allison: The Basket Case.
Here is a girl who is such a social outcast, that she doesn’t belong to any clique. She wears baggy dark clothes, doesn’t speak much and when she does people just stare curiously at her. Everything she does is weird, the way she eats, the way she sits, she is by any high schooler’s definition: a basket case. This is the film that put Ally Sheedy on the map and established herself as a member of the iconic 80's Brat Pack.
Brian: The Brain.
Already dubbed as playing the perfect geek in Sixteen Candles a year prior, Anthony Michael Hall was perfectly cast as Brian, one of the smartest kids in school. We already get insight as to what his home life is like when in the very beginning of the film, he is sitting in the car with his mother who brutally instructs him to use his time in detention to study.
Bender: The Criminal.
The rebel, the outsider, the guy who breaks all the rules because he can. As John Bender, actor Judd Nelson played up what would become some of the most memorable moments of this film, including the final shot in which Bender is walking across the football field and raises his fist up, saluting what after a long Saturday afternoon has become, The Breakfast Club.
So, who are you? A princess, an athlete, a basket case, a brain, or a criminal?
To a first-time viewer, that may be the question we think we are being asked, when actually, there is no inquiry of what social clique you belong to. Unlike what we are forced to do in a high school setting, which is label ourselves as part of a specific group, what John Hughes does with The Breakfast Club is have five very different characters be forced into a room together and in turn, find out that they have much more in common than they think.
Every interaction between these characters is so authentic and is either reminiscent or is a reminder of what life in high school is really like. There are people you idolize, there are people you are jealous of, and there are people who don’t matter to you. Bender antagonizes everyone, pushing Claire and Andy to their limits. There is the iconic scene in which he enters a back and forth shouting match with Assistant Principal Vernon. Claire plays the victim, complaining how people don’t understand her which results in an enormous “HA!” from Allison, one of the few times we hear her speak until the last 3rd of the film. Brian chimes in here and there and what he does say only enhances his character as a geek.
As the day progresses, these five students slowly learn from one another the complicated lives they lead in and out of high school. They socialize over revealing stories, smoking pot, and singling out one another for the social cliques they each surround themselves with. Reality begins to set in. They don’t want to become their parents. They don’t want to get older because when you get older, “your heart dies.” This is why John Hughes could write teenagers better than anyone else. How many times have you said that to your high school self?
In what has become quite possibly my favorite scene ever in a film, the five students sit together in a circle on the floor and reveal the interpersonal details of their lives. We find out why they ended up in detention. We find out that Andy is pressured by his dad to always be number one. We learn that Allison’s parents don’t speak to her. Claire’s parents use her as a tool to get back at one another. Brian is always being pressured about his grades, that he is never good enough. Bender lives in an abusive household.
My favorite scene in a film of all time.
Soon after their revelations, Brian asks the group, “What is going to happen to us on Monday, when we’re all together again?” Claire softly replies, “Are we still friends you mean? If we’re friends now that is?” Brain replies, “Yeah” to which Claire asks, “Do you want the truth?” She then goes on to say, “I don’t think so.” This results in the group criticizing her honesty, even leading Bender to calling her a bitch because she knows how horrible it is to not befriend someone just because she fears her friends will make fun of her for it. Claire in turn tells Bender that if the roles were reversed, he would do the exact same thing and the look on his face after being told that displays that what Claire is saying is the truth. That these five people cannot be friends.
Claire begins to cry, telling Brian that he doesn’t understand how much pressure her friends and Andy’s friends put on them. Brian immediately replies, “You think I don’t understand pressure Claire? Well, fuck you!” He begins to cry and tells the group why he ended up in detention, because a gun was found in his locker because he was going to commit suicide due to a failing grade. The serious tone of the conversation dies down once Brian tells the group that it wasn’t a handgun, it was a flare gun and it went off in his locker. Allison then tells everyone that the reason she came to detention was because she had nothing better to do. Everyone begins to laugh.
Before the days ends, Claire tells Brian she thinks that he should write the paper they were assigned at the beginning of detention because they trust he will know exactly what to say.
Detention comes to an end, Allison and Andy kiss as she tears a patch from his letterman jacket and takes it with her. Claire and Bender kiss and she gives him one of her earrings which he puts on. Brian leaves the essay for Vernon and he reads it as they all go home. We don’t know what will happen on Monday, if they will all still be friends. But what the viewer can take away from this film is that in high school, no matter what social clique you surround yourself with or what group you identify with, we all have some interpersonal link between one another that if we are willing to unmask, can defy all the anxiety and intolerance that we impose on each other.
There is a reason why John Hughes’s 1985 classic has remained an iconic staple in pop culture. It’s not just the impeccable script or the styles that influenced an entire era of fashion. It’s that each one of these characters resonates with us in some way. We all know that girl who has everything, we know that guy who is the best at every sport he tries, or the guy who gets straight A’s in every subject, the girl who hides in the corner and keeps to herself, and the guy who rebels against everything. Each one of these characters is someone we knew or were in high school. And what John Hughes was telling us with The Breakfast Club was the message that we are not alone.
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