80s Movie Challenge Week 17: The Breakfast Club (1985)
Welcome back nostalgia fans!
This time in #80sMC we’re going to try something a little different today. We’ve put Jane Roberts in detention to write us an essay of no less than a thousand words about 1985’s The Breakfast Club and which, as always, contains spoilers.
Summer, 1989. A sultry night in Roundhay Park in Leeds. Simple Minds at the peak of their success, bellowing out Don’t You (Forget About Me) to a rapturous audience. Including me, balanced precariously on my brother’s shoulders, hands aloft, voice hoarse from singing. One of the happiest memories of my teenage years.
This song evokes so many memories for my generation, bursting into our consciousness as it did, from bookending the classic John Hughes movie, The Breakfast Club. Too young to see it at the cinema on release in 1985, we huddled around a borrowed VHS to watch it, fuelled by woodpecker cider, finding our own identification in our glamorous American peers.
You know the tagline – the nerd, the jock, the princess, the basket case. And the criminal. Five high schoolers dropped into detention together for a variety of misdemeanours. Seven hours in a school library, in the era before mobile technology. Just the computer kit alone dates this film, never mind the 80s feature wardrobe.
The Princess, Claire (Molly Ringwald) greets us dressed in half a cowhide, brown leather dripping from every articulated body part. Nerd Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) in a perfectly cast anorak. The Jock Andrew (Emilio Estevez) in his letterman jacket denoting high status. Then the two oddballs appear.
The Basket Case, Allison (Ally Sheedy), in a huge dark parker, complete with a hood for her to go turtle under. And then the smouldering herringbone overcoat clad Criminal, John Bender (Judd Nelson), slouching on it like a lump of congealed testosterone. Wipe the sweat from my brow, baby, I’m melting.
Thirty-five years after cinematic release, Judd Nelson still oozes celluloid hormones. He runs the show, acts ringmaster over the lockdown. He swings the hell out of that overcoat. He shucks it off, down to the denim skin layer. Indeed, as he shucks each layer of clothing off as the film progresses, we get to see a different layer of Bender’s personality. He’s complex, bad yes – but also perceptive, smart. A bit touchy, a whole lot of antagonist. And he drives the conversation out from its comfort zone.
So how does it look viewed with 2020 eyes? Surprisingly good. The classroom dynamics and hierarchy are still relevant. The dialogue is fast, snappy and liberally peppered with f-bombs. The scenes where the five leads are cloistered in the library, in their own self-imposed lockdown are funny and touching, if a little bit uncomfortable for the participants. Eight hours as a teenager shut in with very little to do on a Saturday would seem like a lifetime.
The odd combination works. Really works, the dynamic between the five leads coming to a painful but honest understanding of who each other is, other than their headline social status. And acknowledging that while they may have ended the day as equals with a greater understanding of one another, when they return to school on Monday they will by necessity return to their point on the hierarchy, and by definition, their outward indifference to one another. This rang true back in the 1980s, and it rings just as true today. We can connect through adversity when pushed together, but once normal returns, so do the social constructs that have developed to keep us all running along in our own silos.
Where the film succeeds is in rounding out the headline tags of each of the leads. Nothing is as bland or as obvious as it seems on the surface. They all have pressures – from family, from peers, from expectations. The nerd is failing shop, Bender is a victim of domestic abuse, Claire’s parents are breaking up. The jock feels he is a cypher for the adults in his life, and Allison – well, Allison is a bit of a mystery, to be honest. I’m not down with the narrative that pulls her hair back, slicks on peach lipstick and PING! She’s a cutie snagging the hot jock. But maybe that’s because I see teenage me echoed over and over again in her basket case persona.
At the time the scene of teenagers smoking – and enjoying – marijuana seemed outlandish on-screen to my peer group, living our sheltered lives fuelled by orange alcohol. By today’s standards, it looks tame, given how ubiquitous smoking weed has become. The teacher and the janitor getting drunk together and talking about adult life plays out no more satisfactorily to your teenage years was a nice contrast. You see Paul Gleason’s disaffected teacher Richard Vernon alternatively deploy vicious discipline and scorn at the five (particularly Bender, who he openly scorns for coming from a low socio-economic background), contrasted with his admission that teaching pays him well, but leaves him unfulfilled. And boy, John Kapelos’ janitor Karl is creepy, as the eyes of the school.
That’s not to say The Breakfast Club is without problems. Geek Brian’s character development feels flimsy, which given the reason for him being in detention is his attempted suicide and concealing a weapon in his locker, seems undeveloped and brushed aside without any real sense of how he moves forward from his suicidal impulses. Yes, he’s connected with this group in the moment. But come Monday he’s back on his own, failing shop and damaging his grade point average. And maybe that’s how it would have been in reality.
There’s a strong undercurrent of sexual harassment, mostly stemming from Bender’s interaction with Claire. Attempts by others to intervene are half-hearted at most; they themselves seem quite interested in how Claire responds. In the context of a teen movie, it actually seems quite plausible that conversation would swerve into dangerous territory, given how much Bender both drives and controls the initial narrative of their interaction.
Somewhere over the years, I’d scrubbed the upskirting scene from my memory. Watching The Breakfast Club with my other half, our jaws hit the settee when this scene played out.
This scene is not ok. It’s not necessary in the context of the film, salacious and objectifying. Claire actively hides Bender under her desk, and while his unfortunate view could have been hinted at, it was not necessary to give a full frontal shot as this scene does. In today’s context, it jars badly.
That’s my take on it, but I will defer to Molly Ringwald herself, sixteen at the time of filming, who gave it some serious consideration in a 2018 article in the New Yorker, when she revisits the film with her then ten-year-old daughter. She gives an interesting reflection on her relationship with John Hughes, and his influence both on her career and teen movies at the time. You can read the article here.
The Breakfast Club revisited caught me by surprise. Remembered through nostalgic eyes, it seemed more innocent than it actually is. That theme song seems to hark back to a simpler time at school, where human silos could be crossed, and the weird girl could snag the handsome jock. In reality, the dialogue and cast dynamic remain superb, the social commentary of school life biting.
There’s an ambiguous ending where all five seemed to have found commonality, with a sharing of the lips in some cases. But The Breakfast Club themselves acknowledge that that isn’t their reality. And in 2020’s fractured world, rather sadly this still remains the case.
Jane Roberts writes for World Geekly News, Den of Geek UK, and writes Wellbeing Matters for Film Stories on a weekly basis. Her first collection of short, sweet and slightly odd fiction, The Repository of Lost Souls, is now available. She loves the 80s cheese, quirky and the spooky. Find out more at her irregularly updated blog, Irregular Fiction.
Join us again next week where Rebecca Aulburn takes us back to 1982 and challenges us to a game of TRON.