The Breakfast Club
d. John Hughes / 1985 / USA / 97 mins
There’s something slightly hypocritical about the use of labelling in this, the flagship of the Brat Pack era. Whilst it’s made clear that our young protagonists all suffer from the identity crises forced upon them by their elders, John Hughes himself (as writer and director) exacerbates such antagonism with cookie cutter definitions and dramatic shorthand, characterising his players as “a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal”. This infusion of easily identifiable archetypes with an emphasis on depth sometimes feels like an odd contradiction, but it is a trick that Hughes manages to pull of throughout most of the film, allowing such recognisable tropes to surprise and delight.
It’s easy to see why the film has been converted for the stage by both high-school students and professionals, as the narrative takes place in a single setting and has a limited roster as its cast. It features a dramatic premise that is well worn within theatre and television, yet is perhaps more unique in cinema and almost unheard of in mainstream comedies. During a sole Saturday’s detention, an ensemble of pupils are isolated together; and as the day takes its toll and tensions flare, layers of characterisation are removed, and emotional truths revealed.
Molly Ringwald (Claire, the princess) and Anthony Michael Hall (Brian, the brain) are reunited with Hughes’ again, following their collaboration on his 1984 picture Sixteen Candles. Emilio Estevez dances up a storm as athlete Andrew, whilst Judd Nelson sows anarchy as “criminal” John Bender. It’s a solid cast, and each has the opportunity to leave a strong impression on the audience’s attentions. Outshining them all however, with the least dialogue and screen time is Ally Sheedy as Allison (the basket-case and frequent scene-stealer).
The Breakfast Club is explicitly about labels, soul searching and identity. Predictable though it may be, there’s no denying that the film is geared towards Hughes’ trademark dedication to creating dimensional, dramatically interesting characters. The lapses in performance and writing are few; the escalating conflict on screen hitting its mark more often than not. At its worst, emotional reveals and confrontations are marred by naivety, yet remain charming nonetheless.
As with many films created in the first years of the MTV generation, the soundtrack skirts between iconic, and needlessly intrusive. There are some that might cringe at the extended dance sequence but it’s handled with such cathartic abandon and humour its difficult to remain too cynical and as with the cast’s performances, realism never quite gives way to full-blown absurdity.
Perhaps the most interesting scene is that between the hard-nosed principal Vernon (Paul Gleason) and philosophical janitor/custodial-artist (John Kapelos), wherein both question their perceptions of the men that they’ve become. It’s a scene that is cut short with little space for further resolution but rounds out characters that could be left as easy scapegoats, allowing Vernon in particular to avoid a lack of depth that otherwise borders on pantomime.
The surprisingly even-tempered, nuanced and empowering depiction of teenage life that forms the film’s heart is undermined by the final sequences that champion the need for acceptance, and a dependency on heterosexual norms. A braver film might withhold pairing off the characters, and avoid the makeover scene that marks the film’s biggest misfire; but such scenes are bearable because they belie their well-meaning foundations.The Breakfast Club succeeds in being not only one of the most definitive teen movies of the 80s, but of all time. A genuine interest in understanding the influences and pressures that model our teenage years leads to a film that is as entertaining and moving as any of Hughes’ (or any other comedy writer’s) finest works.