What is the quintessential 1980s movie? Recently I suggested that it was the Back to the Future trilogy, and I stand by that declaration. Despite them spending more time in periods other than the Reagan decade, they say more about that era than they do about others. Still, a very strong case can be made for The Breakfast Club (1985), and indeed I suspect that among those who read this blog there would be many who would argue with me on this issue. And I would not entirely disagree with you. A lot depends on how you want to look at those ten years. If you choose to focus on the more idealized version, as I do, where heroism and virtue were still honestly pursued, I would stick with Back to the Future. If you want to look at a time when the children of Baby Boomers were beginning to come of age and rejecting the rigidness of their parents, then I give you The Breakfast Club.
What do you get when you put together five disparate, stereotypical high school teenagers in detention for an entire day? You get The Breakfast Club. I could almost stop there, but I will go on. You get the idea early on as they all arrive to serve their time in the classic Shermer High School library. I say “classic” as director John Hughes (who brought you such well-known titles from that period as Sixteen Candles (1984) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), to name a few) set all his high school dramas/comedies in the fictional high school in the suburbs of Chicago. At any rate, you have the rich, popular girl, Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald) who is dropped off by her father in a BMW; the nerdy Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall) whose doting mother admonishes him to use his time well; the athletic Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez) whose dad warns him about getting into too much trouble and blowing his opportunity for a wrestling scholarship; the social outcast Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) whose parents unceremoniously dump her off there; and then there is the rebellious for rebellious’ sake John Bender (Judd Nelson) who strolls onto campus, nearly getting hit by the Reynolds’ car without flinching. To watch over them and to (hopefully) ensure their good behavior is Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason), who apparently thinks all teenagers are the scum of the earth. Vernon tells them that they must write an essay about who they think they are and where they think they are going. Being who they really are, everyone aside from Brian blows off the assignment. Instead, they pass the hours, after managing to block off Vernon’s view of them, bantering with each other from their proscribed socially mandated perspectives. At first, it is John who gets in the faces of the other four, calling each out for their behavior in school as being nothing more than them fitting in with their groups. Because John has a rough home life, he acts out in school, and yet has his own group of people who behave in similar ways. What begins to bring them all out of their shells (unfortunately) is the weed that John has in his locker, which he manages to obtain and smuggle into the library. It is shared by all except Allison. After this, though, they sit together and begin opening up to each other about why they are in detention in the first place, which each reveals vulnerabilities about themselves. This becomes a bond between all five, and while it becomes stronger between Andrew and Allison, and John and Claire (if you get what I mean), it is Brian that becomes their voice. His completed essay is narrated as the film ends and each go their separate ways, explaining to Vernon how each of them has in them characteristics of all five.
No offense to Brian or The Breakfast Club in general, but the rest of the movie does not really support this conclusion. As I mentioned in the plot description above, each of them behaves as you would expect from a person coming from their station in life. I will not argue that their bond is genuine, a sort of gallows connection between the condemned. However, as they are building that trust through revealing their reasons for being there, the enduring question of the film is brought up by Brian: what comes next? How do they interact when they see each other at school during the week? Claire is brutally honest. Her and Andrew are from the more popular set, and seemed to be friends before this day. The rest are basically strangers and she suggests that they will remain that way. Brian accuses her of being conceited, which is true, of course. Yet while Andrew and Allison, and John and Claire, exchange kisses upon departure, there is nothing to suggest that their friendship will survive this one Saturday spent in detention. You might say that the diamond earring Claire gives John hints at further communication, but does it? It seems to me that this bit of jewelry is simply a memento to remember that day and nothing more. That fits better with the tone of the film, in which case what is the point of it as a whole? Do they really discover something new about themselves? Or just confirm what they all already knew?
Brian is perhaps the most interesting character in The Breakfast Club. It is not simply because he ends up being the voice of the group. His reason for being in detention is for bringing a gun to school (it was actually a flare gun). As he explains, the pressures of being a smart kid got to him. Everyone, particularly his parents (the real unseen enemy of all the teens in the movie), expects him to succeed. He took shop class because he thought it would be an easy way to maintain his grade-point average. When he began to fail the course, he acted out. Indeed, the argument could be made for each one of them acting out in a way against the wishes of their parents. The obvious reply to these actions is to quote the Ten Commandments where it says to honor thy father and mother. But it is deeper than being a good child or student. Each of the club’s members see themselves through the lens of their social standings, and it informs their behaviors. What I would say to them if I were sitting with them in that library (having not partaken in the weed, of course) is to encourage them to look at themselves as God does. Clearly they are all crying out for love in some way from those around them, but that love will never be as perfect as that which God can give them.
The Breakfast Club is rated R, so if you have never seen it be prepared for some objectionable material. I already mentioned the drug use. There is also a great deal of covert and overt sexual innuendo. As for it being the most symbolic film of the 1980s, I will leave that for you to decide. If you prefer to look at the past as basically a lost time, then it is the movie for you. Or you could view this film as a starting point for these characters truly finding themselves. Either way, it is a little unclear.