If I were to tell you that the main characters of this popular 1980’s film were a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal, there’s a fair chance that most of you will immediately know which film I’m talking about.
Whilst the outfits and references may seem dated, the themes it explored still ring true now and the film is rightly considered one of the best high school movies every made.
The Breakfast Club was released into cinemas in the U.S. in February 1985 and was very well received. Directed by John Hughes (who also directed Weird Science; Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink and Home Alone amongst others), two of the stars (Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall) had also just appeared in Sixteen Candles, another film directed by him, and during shooting he had asked them to star in The Breakfast Club.
Five students at Shermer High School in Illinois are given detentions on a Saturday (UK children all breathed a sigh of relief that no teacher at a school here ever wants to work weekends) for various perceived misdemeanours. It’s a hard shift: they arrive at the school library at 7am and are told they will be there until 4pm. (The name of the film was apparently the nickname given to these sort of detentions by the son of a friend of Hughes – getting a request to come into school at the weekend made you a member of ‘The Breakfast Club’.)
They’ve all been labelled as certain stereotypes by teachers and peers - based on their appearance and their friends – but, as the film progresses, they realise themselves to be so much more than that. One of the best – and pivotal – moments is when they get stoned (the teacher supervision that morning wasn’t up to much) and allow their true personalities to begin to bond with each other.
So, let’s meet the students with the personalities we are lead to believe they have at the beginning. Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald) is privileged, popular and pretty. Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall) is clever, studious and geeky. Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) is an anti-social outsider, wears black and hides behind her hair. Andrew Clarke (Emilio Estevez) is a jock, a state champion wrestler and seemingly an all-round good student. John Bender (Judd Nelson) rebels against the system at every opportunity and is seen as a definite bad boy of the school.
At first glance they, and we, are sure that they have nothing in common with each other at all.
They are left in the charge of assistant principal Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason) – an unpleasant character – who seems to dislike students in general and Bender in particular; he has several confrontations with the older man during the day. In fact, one such flare-up results in Vernon handing out many more detentions to Bender when he refuses to stop answering back and another in Bender being locked up in a storage cupboard.
Vernon is obviously resentful at having to give up part of his weekend and commands the kids to stay silent and not to move from their seats while they each write a 1,000 word essay describing who they think they are. He then disappears to his office across the corridor. He does come back in to check on them occasionally but largely leaves them to their own devices and later on takes a long nap. We get a sneak at what kind of person he really is later, when he is caught by Carl, the janitor, going through confidential teacher files in the basement. Carl promptly blackmails him into not giving him away.
During the early part of their incarceration time they snipe at each other, with the exception of Allison who, apart from the odd interjection here and there, remains quiet and removed from the group. Bender is particularly antagonistic towards Claire, Andrew and Brian: all of whom come from very different social backgrounds from him. Claire and Andrew, in particular, are dismissive of Bender’s perceived lower status and reputation.
Time goes slowly. There are moments of quiet, when they’re all lost in their own thoughts and a time when they all start whistling in unison. At one point, still fairly early on in the day, we see they’ve all fallen asleep at their desks and an illicit trip to Bender’s locker turns into a slightly farcical caper as they try to avoid Vernon. It’s this trip, actually, that reveals a more heroic side to Bender as he lets Vernon catch him, in order to let the others get back to the library undetected.
As the day progresses we begin to get further glimpses into their lives. It turns out that despite the different lifestyles, they are all struggling with issues that bond them in unhappiness, both at school and in their home lives. Bender’s father verbally and physically abuses him and his explosive anger finds an outlet while he is at school. Allison’s parents ignore her, which leads to her constantly lie to try and gain attention. Andrew’s dad pushes him too hard, makes him feel that he’s not good enough and doesn’t let his son think for himself. Claire is used as a pawn in her parents’ all too common arguments and her peers are press-ganging her into losing her virginity, which she isn’t ready for. Brian’s mum and dad hold him on an extremely tight rein and pressurise him into working immensely hard. Having to achieve such high grades all the time has pushed him to breaking point; he is failing in just one, practical not academic, class but the shame was so much that he has been thinking about suicide.
As mentioned earlier, the turning point of their relationships is after the locker trip, when Bender extracts a quantity of marijuana. Sharing a joint, they begin to relax with each other; they laugh and cry together but then descend into some furious, from the heart, arguments. They also discuss whether they will speak to each other in the hallway on Monday; whether their bonding session at that moment is enough to breach their social divide in school, which leads to further disagreements. The conversation lightens when they finally discuss Brian’s situations: it turns out that the gun he brought to school to kill himself with was actually a flare gun that went off in his locker. The four students, who were listening to Brian’s story with sympathy, start to laugh and that makes Brian laugh too.
The laughter, after the stress of their negative outpourings, leads to a release and the five of them put on loud music and dance off the rest of their tension. As the day is drawing to a close none of them have written a thing, so Claire asks Brian if it would make more sense for him to write one on behalf of them all. While he does this, Claire takes Allison off for a makeover, which sends Andrew’s eyes out on stalks and their connection becomes stronger.
Claire then visits Bender, who is back in his storage closet now. She kisses him. Brian finishes the essay and the five of them are finally free to go. They all leave the building, with lifts waiting for Claire, Andrew, Allison and Brian. Andrew and Allison kiss, Claire and Bender kiss again and then they all head home.
Inside, Vernon picks up Brian’s essay. At the beginning of the film, as the students are arriving at school we heard a previous version of this, where Brian’s voiceover states that as of 7am, they all saw each other as purely the five stereotypes that this article started off with. By the end of the film, reflected in this final version of the essay, he states that they can’t simply define who they are as they are all a mixture of characteristics. He ends with:
‘…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 and 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…and a princess…and a criminal. Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.’
This subtle difference shows the alteration of their mind sets, seeing themselves and each other as more complex and integrated than they had previously thought.
The film ends with a shot of Bender walking home alone across a field. He thrusts his fist into the air and the action freezes into a now iconic shot. Simple Minds’ ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ is playing over the end of the film (it’s also at the start) and it’s fair to say that the song has become synonymous with it now.
For a film with such a small cast and so little variation in setting it’s a brilliant watch. What could have been fairly claustrophobic is actually a really interesting look at the often problematic lives of teenagers: trying to both be who they are and who others want them to be at the same time. The dialogue between them all is realistic; the quick twisting between the antagonistic and the caring, the serious and the flippant. There are scenes heightened both with emotion and with humour and the actors play both well – particular Judd Nelson in the scenes with Vernon, where we see a large crack appear in John’s well-hardened outer shell as Vernon verbally lays into him.
There’s only one bit that really jars for me: for a film that spends its whole time showing how trying to stick to their supposed clichés isn’t working for the students and how they should accept themselves for who they are, it finishes by telling us that Allison is obviously much more socially acceptable if she is ‘pretty’.
However much life moves on, teenager troubles won’t and The Breakfast Club’s message will continued to be empathised with and enjoyed by future generations. By the end of the movie the characters’ experiences of weekend detention look so cool that all UK children are secretly wishing that their school offered Saturday confinement too.