Warning: This article features in depth plot analysis. If you have not seen this film you are urged not to read on. Spoiler alert administered.
John Hughes was a big name in the 1980s, but more so as a writer/producer than as a director. He started off as a writer with the National Lampoon’s crew. While it’s true he did work in a formulaic manner, and did practically invent the template for the teen film of the 80s; he did strike gold from time to time. The teen film of the 80s was so badly adapted to the 90s it spawned a spoof film called Not Another Teen Movie at the turn of the century. Hughes became a big player as a writer/producer but rarely directed his own scripts. He directed this film but his other films ran the gamut quality-wise from Weird Science, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off and Curly Sue to Vacation, The Great Outdoors and Home Alone. Hughes’ best directorial efforts were this film and Trains, Planes and Automobiles; regardless of all that this is his seminal work.
We start with a quote by David Bowie which is much better in the written word than it is in the song itself: “…And these children/ That you spit on/As they try to change their worlds/ Are immune to your consultations,/They are quite aware/ Of what they’re going through…” and the image shatters so we begin…
The Breakfast Club is in essence two things: it is first a character study and secondly, a timeless manifesto of teen angst. The setting is Saturday detention, our five protagonists are all here for reasons of their own but they are thrown together in the school library for eight hours and have to co-exist though they are very different. This is one of Hughes’ great situations and has been repeated on shows like Dawson’s Creek. Hughes is a master of creating a great situation for comedy. The premise of Sixteen Candles is that everyone has forgotten the main character’s birthday and it was a plot of one episode on practically every sitcom in the 1980s. This film is almost a play it is so dialogue-driven, however, if you turned it into a play I don’t think it’d work not that that’s going to stop anyone from trying [I’ve since learned at a screening with a Q & A hosted by Kevin Smith that this film was initially written as a stage play].
“Anyone who moans that cinema in the 80s amounted to the death of dialogue and the triumph of action Jackson, should take a look at this movie. It’s all talk.”
The characters are immediately defined as we see them dropped off at school. Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) is told by his mother to use his time to study, he protests saying he isn’t supposed to study and she says he has to find a way; he’s the brain. Andrew (Emilio Estevez) is being reamed out by his father that he won’t get a scholarship if he gets caught again that and his letter jacket tell us; he’s the jock. Claire (Molly Ringwold) is being told that cutting school doesn’t make her a defective; she’s the popular girl or the princess. Allison (Ally Sheedy) is dropped off without a word when she goes to say goodbye the car speeds off and almost runs over Bender (Judd Nelson) so we have the last two, the basket case and the criminal. These labels are very important because that’s what we all perceive them as in the beginning and how they perceive each other and we learn about these characters and they bond with each other. While they’re in detention they’re each supposed to write a 1,000 word essay but they choose to do something else instead.
Why they ended up in detention ends up being like the “Rosebud” of this film. Except in this film it is but a gimmick. In their discussions, we find out more and more about these characters and what pushed them there. We find out about their home lives and for all of them there is something that makes it unbearable for them. In a very memorable scene Bender re-enacts a typical night in his house and depicts an argument between his parents. When Andrew doesn’t believe him he lifts his sleeve and says “See this? It’s about the size of a cigar. See this is what you get in my house when you spill paint in the garage.” Andrew relates how his father was always browbeating him to be number one and how he’s been made to hate weakness. Claire’s affections are a prize her parents keep fighting over since their divorce. Brian relates how he nearly killed himself, albeit with a flair gun, because he got a B in shop and his parents demand academic excellence from him “I can’t have it, and my parents can’t have it,” he says. At the end, we find out Allison’s problem is that her parents outright ignore her and that’s why she’s been contemplating running away. Their discussion concludes with the question “My God are we all going to turn into our parents” and Allison “It’s inevitable at a certain age your heart dies,” which leads us to the antagonist.
The villain in this film is Principal Vernon (Paul Gleason). He is the establishment. And when he gets Bender alone he ranks him out like nobody’s business, and you just want to punch him right in the face, and he even gives Bender the chance to but Bender’s not used to this brutal honesty and is scared to death. I’d even say his tough guy image is an act even though he does have a hellish home life. Vernon also talks to the janitor and complains that “Every year these kids are getting more and more arrogant,” and then the Janitor speaks the truth saying “Come on, Vern, the kids haven’t changed you have. What do you think you’d think of yourself at their age?” and that ends the conversation. The principal is the embodiment of everything these kids hate and fear becoming. And he also gives a very good and funny performance. The teen angst of this film is apparent. When this film becomes a manifesto is when at the end they decide to ask Brian to write their essay for them and he agrees.
While there is a montage at the beginning of all that is high school. This is also a striking visual sequence. We see Vernon holding the paper, Claire and Bender being romantic, Andrew and Allison holding hands and Brian getting into his car. And we hear Brian doing a voice-over narration:
“Dear Mr. Vernon: We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it is we did wrong, but we think you’re crazy for making 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? Sincerely yours, The Breakfast Club.”
And as the narration ends we see Bender walking across the football field and he pumps his fist in the air as “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds plays the frame freezes. It’s the best, and one of the few acceptable, freeze frame endings I’ve ever seen; it’s perfect.
Some of the vernacular in this film is very 80s for example I don’t think I’ll ever know what “Neo-maxi-zoom-dweebie” is but the themes and storyline that run through this film are timeless such that I only came to see this film about three years ago (as of this writing). It’s a great piece of adolescent rebellion and a great comedy undoubtedly Hughes’ best work.
Works Cited: p. 33 Brat Pack: Confidential Andrew Pulver and Steven Paul Davies. BT Batsford: London, 2000.
The Breakfast Club. Dir. John Hughes. 1985. featuring Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwold, Ally Sheedy, Anthony Michael Hall, Paul Gleason. Universal Pictures.