By Marc S. Sanders
The outcry of teen angst in the 1980s comes through predominantly in the dramatic talking piece called The Breakfast Club. I look at the film as a mature interpretation of Charles Schultz’ Peanuts Gang actually, and maybe an extension of some of the themes found in Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. The children are heard. The adults are present but are mostly muffled and out of consideration. Writer/Director John Hughes wanted the five teenagers destined to occupy a Saturday in the school library for detention to completely undo their armor. With adults in the way, kids can never truly be themselves. Lies, exaggerations and attempts at acceptable image come first but as his script progresses, the teens are reduced to expressing how they value themselves and each other.
Having grown up watching The Breakfast Club by myself on many Friday nights after some challenging weeks of school, I was always looking to sit on the floor with this pack and share my own demons and fears. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes I felt as if the brain (Anthony Michael Hall, as Brian), the athlete (Emilio Estevez as Andrew), the basket case (Ally Sheedy as Allison), the princess (Molly Ringwald as Claire) and the criminal (Judd Nelson as John) spoke back to me and told me when I was wrong or when I was justified for having felt like I did.
Nearly forty years later, some of the thought processes the five endure of themselves seems outdated and inappropriate, however. For example, in Hughes’ film the female characters are sexually harassed, harshly criticized and/or they succumb to stepping outside their comfort zone and changing their appearance to please a male character. Had this film been released in a post Me Too era, I think both sides of the political aisle would protest its content. The Breakfast Club is certainly a movie of its day where it’s treated as comedic escapism to have Nelson’s character commit a fellatio act upon Ringwald’s panty covered crotch. Do not mistake me. I am not crying foul and demanding censorship or calling for torches and pitchforks. The contents of The Breakfast Club should certainly remain preserved and viewed upon as what was a mindset of films in the 1980s, and perhaps how the opposite sexes treated one another then. Sadly, it is still happening all too often.
The success of the film relies upon the differences in the characters. None of them have the same interests. Yet, if you allow them to live among themselves without any outside influences, they will open up to one another. Hughes’ film begins where the characters hardly speak. John gets the ball rolling as the troublemaker looking for shock value as he attempts to urinate on the floor in front of the others and then succeeds in unifying the students when he causes the library door to remain shut keeping Mr. Vernon (Paul Gleason), the teacher/antagonist, out of reach of them. Why should the five work together against Mr. Vernon? They don’t know or have respect for each other. Why? Because one generation will stand arm and arm against another generation, specifically a domineering entity.
Now that they are isolated, Hughes writes in set ups allowing the five to shed their skin. In one scene, the ladies empty the contents of their purses while the men’s wallets are exposed. John sleeps around. Allison may be mentally ill. Claire lives off the vanity that comes with makeup and perfumes. Brian’s middle name is revealed. (“Ralph, as in puke.”) The kids lie about their sexual conquests only to be cornered into telling how little experience some of them actually have. Maybe the most common plane they share are their home lives. Each uncovers how they relate to their parents and none of them have an ideal upbringing. Rather, they are disregarded or abused or forced into an appearance they really are not passionate about. Before the film ends, the five will have their battle cry of dancing individually first, and then lined up together, unified, to a song titled, We Are Not Alone.
Hughes even allows enough time and subtlety to demonstrate how Mr. Vernon seems to suffer. There’s a quick moment, where Vernon commits John to two months of detention. As Vernon storms out of the room, John screams out “Fuck You!” and Hughes keeps a closeup on Vernon letting out a weary sigh. His exhaustion of being the authoritative adult is wearing on him. Yet, after twenty-two years of teaching it is also the only pedestal he has left to stand on; to rule over five misfits on a boring isolated Saturday. Later, he’ll only feel his most powerful when he has John imprisoned away from the others and he can antagonize and threaten him with the intent of elevating his stature over a punk kid. (Ironically, this moment also reveals how weak John is and not the intimidating bully he holds himself to be in front of the others.) Later, Vernon tells the janitor how he’ll have to worry about these kids growing up to look after him when he is elderly. He’s been so occupied with being sadistically cruel, he has not allowed time to carve out a balanced future.
The Breakfast Club is an important piece to watch for uncovering teenage mentality and the subconsciousness. How do teenagers function by themselves, with outsiders, with their peers, and with their parents? What’s best celebrated in many of John Hughes’ films are when he allows his characters not to hinder how they truly regard one another. While I won’t spoil how these five consider each other by the end of this particular Saturday, as an adult and one who analyzes story more carefully than I did at age fourteen, I am disappointed with how Hughes concludes his film. At least for four of the characters, it doesn’t seem right. While I’m let down though, that doesn’t mean the movie is wrong.
Teenagers will not always act upon what is right or more precisely what they know to be right or just. Our teenage years are an opportunity to commit and then learn from our mistakes. In our adolescent years, we explore what is forbidden with misbehavior and risk whether it be rebelling against authority, daring to drink and do drugs, acting upon sexual impulse or exacting bullying and peer pressure. Even sneaking through the hallways around school is a game of cat and mouse where the goal is not to get caught by the teacher.
I’m inclined to recommend that parents watch The Breakfast Club with their kids when they are mature enough for the material. Yet, I really don’t want to. The whole point of the film is to cut off these kids from the outside world of parents and teachers and peers who expect something different of them than how they truly see themselves. If my daughter were to watch this movie with mom and dad sitting right next to her, then she might not unequivocally respond to what Andrew, Claire, Allison, Brian and John really have to say. To get in their minds, my daughter would have to watch without any outside influence where the conversation she has with the film is private between The Breakfast Club and her. Perhaps, then she’ll see another teenager’s honest point of view.