#591) The Breakfast Club (1985)

#591) The Breakfast Club (1985)

OR “Five Angry Teens”

Directed & Written by John Hughes

Class of 2016 

The Plot: Five students at Illinois’ Shermer High School spend their Saturday in a nine-hour detention session run by Vice Principal Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason). The five students initially see each other as their stereotypes: by-the-book academic Brian (Anthony Michael Hall), muscle-headed jock Andrew (Emilio Estevez), silent introvert Allison (Ally Sheedy), put-together popular girl Claire (Molly Ringwald), and rebellious delinquent Bender (Judd Nelson). Over the course of their day together, the five start to see that they all have much more in common; mostly their struggles dealing with parents and teachers, and their anxieties about fitting in and staying within the high school status quo. Will this group break free from their self-imposed shackles? Or will life go back to normal on Monday?

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “a comedy that delivers a message with laughs” and highlights the film’s longevity.

But Does It Really?: One of the questions I ask myself when watching a movie is “What was the director’s goal when making this, and did they achieve it?” With “The Breakfast Club”, the answer is a resounding yes. Part of the film’s longtime appeal is because it succeeds at what it wants to be: a movie for and about teenagers that treats its subjects with authenticity and respect. For a brief moment in the ’80s, John Hughes was the voice of every confused teenager, unsure of their identities and/or of their place in the world. Aided by note-perfect performances from its young ensemble, “The Breakfast Club” takes us beyond what we think teenagers are like and shows us how we truly felt in our teen years. Plus it has a bitchin’ soundtrack. No argument here for NFR inclusion.

Everybody Gets One: This is the only NFR appearance for all five main cast members (though Emilio Estevez has a brief uncredited appearance in “Badlands“). Of the five, Anthony Michael Hall and Molly Ringwald were the only two age-appropriate cast members (both were 16). Estevez and Ally Sheedy were 22 during production, Judd Nelson 24.

Wow, That’s Dated: Other than the soundtrack and some of the clothing, there’s nothing too aggressively ’80s about “The Breakfast Club”. Unfortunately that means we have to focus on the surprising amount of misogyny and homophobia throughout this movie. For a more detailed analysis, I highly recommend this think-piece that Molly Ringwald penned for the New Yorker in 2018, in which she reexamines this film and “Sixteen Candles” from a #MeToo perspective.

Title Track: Originally, titled “Detention”, Hughes’ script got its name from one of his friend’s teenage son, who attended New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois. The school’s morning detention was dubbed “The Breakfast Club” by students, who most likely got the name from the Chicago-based radio program “Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club“.

Seriously, Oscars?: No nominations for “The Breakfast Club” from the Oscars or any other voting group. The film would not receive any accolades until 2005, when the MTV Movie Awards gave the film the Silver Bucket of Excellence in honor of its 20th anniversary.

Other notes 

  • “The Breakfast Club” was meant to be writer John Hughes’ directorial debut. After completing the screenplay in 1982 and getting an option from A&M films, “Breakfast Club” sat in limbo for a few years. In the meantime, Hughes wrote a few more screenplays, including “Mr. Mom”, which was a big enough hit to get Hughes a three-picture deal with Universal. The studio agreed to greenlight “Breakfast Club”, on the condition that Hughes’ more accessible teen comedy “Sixteen Candles” be made first.
  • You can’t hate a movie that begins with text from David Bowie’s “Changes”. The inclusion of the lyrics was suggested by Ally Sheedy.
  • This movie excels at non-verbal character intros. We learn so much about our lead characters just from how they dress, what kind of cars their parents drive, where they sit in detention, etc. Hughes establishes these character tropes quickly to give himself enough time to break them down.
  • Ah yes, the John Hughes tradition of parents and authority figures being the worst. Do people automatically become assholes once they turn 18 in this universe?
  • That being said, Paul Gleason is relishing the opportunity to play the antagonistic Vice Principal Vernon. A former athlete turned actor, Gleason has the correct amount of menace and sleaze, without veering into the cartoonish buffoonery of Rooney from “Ferris Bueller“.
  • Mainly I’m just amazed that a major movie studio like Universal would ever produce a low-budget character study with a single setting and a small ensemble. The days of that ever happening again are done and done.
  • Wait, Bender said “Eat my shorts” first? I thought that was a Bart Simpson thing. Next you’re gonna tell me Bender never said “Bite my shiny, metal ass.
  • While never as revered as his father Martin Sheen or as eccentric as his brother Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez has maintained a steady legacy of good performances, and “Breakfast Club” is no exception. As Andrew, Estevez, perfectly encapsulates the kind of alpha male athletes who blindly follow orders without learning to think for themselves, and takes the character on a lovely arc. And for the record, Estevez is not anti-vaxx.
  • Also great in this movie is Anthony Michael Hall, though mainly that’s because I was definitely a Brian-type in my high school years, and sympathized the most with his character. When you play a lovable loser as well as Hall does, you can’t fault him for bulking up and playing completely against-type in his adult years.
  • Sometimes I can get a little too critical with movies on this list (I can imagine some of you vigorously nodding your heads now). Case in point: I found myself quite annoyed by the characters’ constant bickering over such inconsequential things as virginity and popularity, but I had to remind myself that’s the point. When you’re in high school, those subjects are the most important, and there’s going to be a lot of talk about them. It all stems from this film’s main theme of Image: what it means for teenagers and how they can best dismantle it. “The Breakfast Club” was not meant to be observed and analyzed like a museum artifact, it is meant to be enjoyed by its target audience: teens who feel like outsiders.
  • My pick for MVP is Ally Sheedy, quietly stealing the show as “the basket case”. Even without dialogue for most of the movie, Allison’s presence is always felt in each scene, a notion reiterated by the constant cutaways to her for reaction shots.
  • I got nothing against Molly Ringwald in this movie (and I have a ton of respect for her after reading the aforementioned think-piece), but most of Claire’s reaction shots in this movie are her looking dreamily at Bender. Even the ’80s fell victim to the “He’s a jerk but she’s okay with it” trope.
  • I’m enjoying John Kapelos’ down-to-earth performance as Carl the janitor, though I would give a lot to have seen Hughes’ first choice Rick Moranis, who apparently grew out a beard and planned to play the role in a Russian accent. “The Breakfast Club” could have been a weirder, very different movie.
  • Ah man, Bender’s joke about a naked lady walking into a bar was made-up. The internet has provided a few possible punchlines, my choice being “You’re telling me. I thought I was buying a dachshund.”
  • The big scene is of course when our five leads, sitting comfortably on the library floor, finally open up about their true selves and why they’re in detention. All five actors do an excellent job playing the scenes naturally, with any emotional hysterics coming across as justified and not forced. I just wish I was this insightful when I was 17.
  • And now for everyone’s favorite part, the dance montage! I’ll take this time to shout out legendary film editor Dede Allen, removed from her auteur days cutting “The Hustler” and “Bonnie and Clyde“, injecting the right amount of kinetic energy to a movie that’s just “people talking”.
  • I’ve only seen “Breakfast Club” a handful of times, but I always roll my eyes when Allison gets a makeover and suddenly turns the heads of her male colleagues. What message is this sending?
  • But perhaps the film’s most iconic moment comes from its final shot: Bender walking across an empty football field, raising his fist in triumph as the screen freeze-frames on him and the credits roll. I’m pretty sure this is the epicenter for the ’80s freeze-frame trope.

Legacy 

  • “The Breakfast Club” premiered in February 1985, and was a decent (if not spectacular) hit; receiving praise from most critics and earning $45 million on a $1 million budget. In the ensuing years, the film has become a beloved encapsulation of its time and a rite of passage for generations of teens.
  • Immediately following “The Breakfast Club”, Hall and Ringwald continued with John Hughes’ follow-ups (“Weird Science” and “Pretty in Pink”, respectively), while Estevez, Nelson, and Sheedy joined the cast of Joel Schumacher’s “St. Elmo’s Fire” (playing college graduates!). In the lead-up to “Elmo’s” premiere in June 1985, reporter David Blum wrote an article for New York magazine about this new roster of young talent. Comparing the popularity of Estevez, Nelson, and “Elmo’s” co-star Rob Lowe to the Rat Pack of the ’50s and ’60s, Blum dubbed the group “The Brat Pack”, a name that continues to define these actors and their 80’s filmography. For the record, no one in the “Brat Pack” likes the name or its implications, and Blum subsequently admitted he regrets writing that article.
  • Like any iconic movie, “The Breakfast Club” has had its share of parodies and homages. The TV show “Community” gets its overall vibe from “Breakfast Club”, citing the film in its pilot episode, and casting Anthony Michael Hall in a guest role a few episodes later.
  • There was occasional talk of a sequel by John Hughes in the late ’80s, which would have seen the characters in their ’20s and ’30s, but the writer/director’s falling-out with Molly Ringwald (and his dislike of working with Judd Nelson) stalled those plans. Similarly, talks of a reboot have mercifully never come to fruition.
  • Perhaps the film’s biggest breakout star wasn’t one of its actors, but rather one of its songs. Scottish rock band Simple Minds was reluctant to perform “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” for the movie, but relented, recording the entire song in one three hour session (the “la la las” at the end were filler). The success of “The Breakfast Club” gave Simple Minds their only number one hit, and the song remains a staple of the ’80s and the ’80s teen film genre.

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