By Erin Blakeley
The Breakfast Club – 1985 – dir. John Hughes – Original Theatrical Trailer
Early on in The Breakfast Club, Brian Johnson, one of the students stuck in Saturday detention is asked to describe the activities of the Physics club, of which he is a member. “I guess you could consider it a social situation,” he replies. “I mean, there are other children in that club.” Today, no self-respecting teenager, on-screen or off, would ever refer to himself as a child. In fact, the word ‘children’ has largely fallen from the lexicon, replaced by shorter, snappier words—kids, teens, tweens—that reflect the growing lack of distinction between adults and their progeny. Yet, the characters in The Breakfast Club—the five high schoolers famously archetyped as the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess and the criminal—are children. Each one, save Bender (the criminal), is dropped off at Saturday detention by a parent. And despite the promise of social transformation that is at the heart of the film’s appeal, at the end of the film, after all the truth-telling and boundary-breaking and making out—they get right back in the car with their parents.
It’s a long way from 2007’s hit movie about a teenager, Juno, in which the pregnant heroine listens to Mott the Hoople in a married man’s basement and sets up living room furniture on people’s front lawns in the middle of the night.
Indeed, more than 20 years after its theatrical release in 1985, the sincerity of The Breakfast Club is almost shocking. The five characters peck at each other, roam the halls, spark a joint and argue about sex. But somehow, they are so serious. Each one describes the series of events that led to their detention in hushed, somber tones, one-upping each other in their tales of dysfunctional home lives. Is it worse to be beaten or ignored? To suffer the crushing blow of athletic expectations, or of intellectual ones? To be a pawn in an unhappy marriage?
The problems are real, and continue to be ones to which audiences can relate, which is part of the reason for the film’s staying power. But the characters in The Breakfast Club are genuinely shocked by their anger, perplexed by their fucked-upness. Unlike today’s screen teens, who expect it and the Prozac prescription that goes along with it, these kids seem to view their unhappiness as a grave injustice, visited upon them by their parents and perpetuated by the social caste system that is the American high school. Those two forces come together perfectly in the character of Richard Vernon, the principal of Sherman High School and overseer of Saturday detention. As long as kids are buying tickets to movies, there will be depictions of adults as idiots, even if it is no longer the universal standard. But Richard Vernon is a special kind of idiot, both because he displays an unusually dark—bordering on sadistic—dislike of young people, but also because he stands for all of the forces against which the characters feel so impotent. Yet for all his power, he is powerless. And while the five kids are utterly humorless about their relationships with their parents, they find an ability both to mock Vernon and to utterly disregard him. When he demands they each submit an essay about who they are, they respond with a collaborative effort. “You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions,” they write, shrugging him off. “Does that answer your question?”
The Breakfast Club may be guilty of trafficking in certain teen-fantasy clichés. Parents are bad. Children are victimized. High school is a prison. Yet, in important ways, The Breakfast Club was utterly groundbreaking. The dialogue was an early forerunner to the dialogue to which we have become so accustomed from on-screen teenagers—smart-mouthed, quick-quipped, and irreverent toward figures of authority. Teenage sarcasm found its voice in this film, and it has been a mainstay of teen-themed pictures ever since.
Moreover, as everyone from Cameron Crowe to Judd Apatow has reminded us in the last 20 years, fitting in remains the central theme of American adolescent life. And despite its outdated earnestness, no other movie so satisfyingly concludes that fitting in is possible for all of us.