A Look Back: The Breakfast Club

“Who do you think you are?”

It’s an inquiry often preceded by a “just,” and applied to everybody from the driver who broke a traffic infraction to a young person who has done something smart alecky or downright presumptuous. More confrontational than the other question that gets asked of young people a lot: i.e “What do you want to be when you grow up?” it may sound like a challenge or the start of an interrogation. Because kids and teens often have no idea where to start when it comes to replying. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t take it seriously, even if they’re not about to share the intricacies of the process with nosy adults.

When I was growing up, there were a set of strip malls downtown referred to collectively as a “Village.” The Village included a Burger King which had an outdoor playground on Astro-Turf, not asphalt like all the others of that decade, so it was harder to hurt yourself. There was a video arcade and a store where you had the option of selecting from over a hundred decals (!) in order to pick the perfect one that the staff would then iron on a t-shirt of your choosing. There was also the first video store in the area called Jasco’s. Jasco’s, run by an amiable but not creepily friendly man, was a site to which I made a pilgrimage at least once a week and the source of much of my early film education, including most of the teen classics directed and written by John Hughes.

I saw many such teen movies before I actually became one myself – it was sort of like being allowed to stay up and spy on the big kids. And while my family was not exactly from the wrong side of the tracks like “Pretty In Pink’s” Andie Walsh, neither was I friends with people who owned huge houses with in-ground pools and sports cars in the garage. (My friend’s dad did happen to be paranoid about anyone getting dirt in his car, but it was not a Ferrari or a Porsche.) Like John Hughes’ fictional Shermer, Illinois, my suburb was almost all Caucasian, but that’s where the similarities ended. Hughes’ teens existed in a parallel world where the figuring out who you were may have been a trip laced with embarrassment, pain and frustration, but it was also a place where magic could – and did happen. Dreams could come true – and connections could be made – even if they were just temporary. To me, that world was exotic – not just class-wise, but because it showed that clique boundaries were more fluid than I’d assumed.

“Sixteen Candles,” is a classic Cinderella story, and “Pretty in Pink,” is also about a girl who gets to go to the ball, despite all the obstacles placed in her way. However, the third film of the trio, “The Breakfast Club,” is set on a Saturday in an upper middle class suburban high school. At the start, we see five students arrive for all-day detention: Molly Ringwald (the princess), Emilio Estevez (the athlete), Judd Nelson (the criminal), Anthony Michael Hall (the brain), and Ally Sheedy (the “basket case.”) Stone-faced Principal Vernon (Paul Gleason) faces them down, informing them that by the day is through, they must compose an essay telling him who they think they are. Then he leaves them to their own devices.

Bit by bit, the characters break the silence. They doodle. They fidget. Ally draws an elaborate picture with her dandruff. Judd hones right onto Molly and starts baiting her. Then somehow, they’re talking. Soon they’re forming an alliance of sorts against the principal, who’s portrayed as far more sinister that “Ferris Bueller’s” Principal Rooney. Eventually, one inquires why another is in detention, which leads to a mutual opening up on the subject of parents, peers and cliques. The only outside ally comes in the form of the school janitor (John Kapelos), who stops by to offer some advice. By the end, they’ve made alliances – though if they will last until next Monday remains to be seen. Unlike Ferris, the five characters did not know what they were getting into when they woke up that morning, but by the end, even though the world is still an imperfect place, it feels a little less unforgiving and lonely.

“The Breakfast Club,” is missing many of the staples of films about young people. There are no car chases or crashes, no prom drama, no raucous house parties or big dances. Sex is freely discussed, but there’s little of it actually taking place. Instead there’s mostly sitting and talking – taking place within a contained environment (so arranged because Hughes was not used to directing at the time), an original high school which was rented for the set. The drama is psychic and the danger psychological, but that makes for a movie every bit as absorbing as one with the more traditional staples. “It’s unavoidable,” Ally Sheedy’s Allison says at one point, “…When you grow up, your heart dies.” Hughes proved by this movie that his heart was far from dead, and for the generation he made it (and for generations to come), he made sure that at least some of us would purposely try to avoid that fate.


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