The Breakfast Club (1985) – John Hughes (Dir.), Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, Michael C. Hall, Paul Gleason
Alright, let’s get the elephant out of the room. Yes, there is a two ton elephantine lump of cultural awkwardness constantly resting in the doorway of my blog-based discussions. And, like the clown chasing me in my nightmares, it’s massive, pink, and has a mild obsession with the Youth in America. That’s right, I had never seen The Breakfast Club…until this last weekend. In fact, growing up in the UK, the antics of a bunch of North Shore brats drinking and charming their way through 1980s high school had very little cultural resonance for me. I barely understood what high school even was, despite frantically gobbling down Buffy the Vampire Slayer and to a lesser (read: far greater) extent Sabrina the Teenage Witch throughout my formative years (that might explain a few things). The work of John Hughes is unmistakably American. These tales are about American kids drinking American beers having American problems in American schools with American accents (unless they’re that one Asian kid in that one movie). Thusly, the extent of my Hughes-ian exploration was limited to the Chris Columbus scream-directly-into-the-camera-a-thon and Joe-Pesci-when-were-you-dramatically-castrated-fest Home Alone along with the bizarre exercise in repetitive futility that was Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. It seems as though, like unicorns, Chimeras and the dinosaurs did with Noah’s Ark, I missed the boat on pretty much the most important thing ever. Children of the 80s practically subsisted on Hughes’ simultaneously bleak and unendingly optimistic image of teenagers. Unfortunately, as a Brit, all I had was Monty Python, Trainspotting and Doctor Who. So, when I realized that most people didn’t dress as women, walk sillily while dosing themselves with heroin and running away from toilet-plunger-wielding Daleks, I was sorely disappointed. But that’s what your 20s are for!
The Breakfast Club charts a single day in the life of five high schoolers incarcerated in Saturday detention for a whole slew of petty crimes, some obvious and others held secret until the ending. We have the nerd (Anthony Michael “Not Michael C.” Hall), the popular girl (an iconoclastic Molly Ringwald), an awkwardly puffy-haired and eyebrow-bleached wrestler-jock with a good heart (Emilio Estevez), a crazy chick (Ally Sheedy) and the most trying-too-hard badass since Rock Hudson married that lady that one time (Judd Nelson). Under the eye of a bored teacher (Die Hard’s Paul Gleason, RIP) these kids begin their day as five separate and parallel entities, content to operate and survive in their own tiny bubbles of social awkwardness and ineptitude. However, as Bender (Nelson) spends the day disrupting their individual peaces, he heats up the pot and those separate, rigid parallel lines soften and collapse into one another; a tangled mess of teenage spaghetti (Worst. Italian meal. Ever.) They skip out of the library to find weed, crawl through ducts, lock their teacher out of sight and out of mind, and, ultimately, in a beautiful climax of unspoken emotion, engage in perhaps the greatest teen dance sequence of all time set to Karla Devito’s “We Are Not Alone”.
Now, I’ve never seen Sixteen Candles or Pretty in Pink, the Ringwald Trilogy, as I’ve decided to label it. However, I’ve always found Hughes’ movies smart but lacking anything other than surface emotion. Don’t get me wrong, I’m basing this solely off of the hilarious, seminal and only-thing-that’s-going-on-Matthew-Broderick’s-gravestone Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as well as the ridiculously stupid, hetero-normatively problematic, and Robert-Downey-Jr-licious Weird Science. Here, though, it seems as Hughes set out to craft a treatise on teenager-hood. While, at the beginning, he seems to ridicule the meager maladies affecting these preparatory-protected progeny, it becomes clear that, as he strips each child of their obligatory masks and social veils, they are all essentially the same scared, good-natured beings underneath. Though it only lasts about 9 hours, this movie is a serious journey for these children. At the end, as each is picked up by their respective parental units, a simple and effective mirroring of the opening scene, we are coarsely reminded of how far each of these young adults have come.
More than once during the proceedings I was reminded of (PRETENSION ALERT) Satre’s No Exit, the existential tale of three people trapped in a hotel room for all eternity. In both cases, the protagonists, or antagonists, depending on your point of view, are driven by their sense of claustrophobia. The only inciting action in the tale is one of entrapment. There are key differences. While Satre was attempting to divulge the rotten innards of the human condition, eventually stating quite simply that “Hell is other people” (but in French so it probably sounds even more pretentious…and there’s probably a cigarette involved…and a croissant…man I could really go for a croissant right now), Hughes states the opposite. These kids are here for a finite stretch of incarceration. They will leave and everything will be fine. They could sit in silence, as they do for a stretch of the opening, refusing to interact and remaining on the separate islands. But for teenagers, without the benefit of time and experience under their belts, eight hours might as well be an eternity. These issues don’t evaporate when they leave that library. While in No Exit the three insufferable asses (because, let’s be real, everyone in that play is terrible) drive each other insane because they have nothing better to do, here, the five puncture each other’s bubbles out of sheer necessity. All five need to be saved. It’s no mistake that the teacher spends the second half of the film utterly absent, drinking beers with the janitor and lamenting the changing young. This isn’t any Finding Forrester or Good Will Hunting. These children’s salvation is in one another. One by one they strip away their armor and show what they are within…just kids. They’re scared of everything. They barely understand the world and the few rules they’ve learned have done nothing but inflict horrors on their psyches. Every teenager feels like a felon until proven adult. I know I did. And I was a goody-fucking-two shoes for all 10 years (apart from one party where I probably could have died. You learn fast or you get fucked, I guess). Perhaps the best line in the movie comes from the janitor who, while listening to the embittered Gleason spew hatred after hatred on this generation, declaring them the worst he’s ever seen, finally interjects and says, “It’s not the kids that are changing. It’s you.”
I never expected to be affected quite as strongly by this movie. I assumed shenanigans and antics and montages and boobies, you know, stuff from the 80s. What I discovered, on that harshly hungover Sunday morning, was something deeply touching. While I might have started with a sneer, especially balking at Bender’s heavy-handed attempts at basic authoritarian subversion, I didn’t want to let these five kids go after the end credits. As someone who has just escaped the event horizon of teenager-dom, I could still identify with the fears, the pressures and the insecurities of these five. We have the popular girl who despises her friends and is incapable of making a choice against the grain in fear of being ostracized; the jock who does everything his father tells him to, even to the point of descending to delinquency just because ‘that’s what boys are supposed to do’; the nerd who is so deathly afraid of a failing grade that he goes to almost unreal extremes; the troubled child of a broken home whose every day is a battle and, finally, the ignored weirdo who crafts her social isolation to be her defining trait because she’s afraid there’s nothing else below. Their adventures are impossible, almost surreal in their isolation. It’s as though these five have been transported to another plane, devoid of time and circumstance, where they can find this momentary connection across every social high-school divide. The climax, like an awkward threesome, is one of quiet contemplation and emotion. One of the most affecting moments in the entire film comes from Anthony Michael Hall’s Brian when he asks the damning question: “After today, will we all still be friends?” Ms. Ringwald tells him the harsh but inescapable truth: “No.” There has never been such a succinct assault on the terrors of high school’s emotional brutality.
In the end, they write a letter to their captor, a manifesto, if you will, declaring who they are, who they think they are, and who they want to be. It’s a carefully crafted set of words that I’ve heard quoted here there and everywhere. It’s good. It’s important. It’s Hughes’ thesis in a perfectly packaged nutshell. But that isn’t the point of the movie. Not for me. The most exhilarating moment that has plagued my brain in the most glorious of ways every moment of the day since watching this movie is the dance sequence. After these five have wept and connected and accepted that the future is scary and that perhaps they will never be together again, they do something so basic. They dance. All five of them, lacking any choreography or rhythm or talent or anything just begin flailing and kicking and cheering and head banging and air-guitaring and skipping and twirling and gyrating without giving any fucks whatsoever. If there was a sudden shortage of fucks spreading throughout the universe and these kids had vaults of the things…they wouldn’t give a single one. Of course the song’s refrain “We are not alone” couldn’t be more heavy-handed if it tried. But we see these five unhinged and free, each isolated in their own personal mangled dancing styles. Suddenly, though, we shift to their synchronized antics on top of the tables, dancing from side to side in tandem. It couldn’t be a more glorious catharsis.
Perhaps the most incredible thing about The Breakfast Club is that at its conclusion, I wasn’t quite sure what I had just witnessed. It is epic. It is mythic. And yet, it’s probably the simplest thing you could ever fucking ask for. I sat there staring at the screen, mind blank and yet muddled with an infinite writhing mass of thoughts and considerations. It’s taken me three days to sort out that mess and order it into something at least partially coherent. I will say this, and I have never felt this in my entire life…entire life. The only thing I wanted to do when the credits rolled, watching Bender’s fist thrust into the air captured in a moment of victory and frozen modern mythology, was to press play again and witness this movie in its totality once more.
It was the most beautiful feeling in the world.