Back to School - Breakfast Club

The Breakfast Club

As the children of the world start to drip back into their education after the longest summer break in history, we delve into our school related film favourites. For Back to School weekend Ren Zelen remembers Breakfast Club...

It was against the creative abundance that characterized 1980s movies that audiences were first introduced to the work of the director and screenwriter John Hughes (1950-2009). In a decade overflowing with derivative teen films his movie The Breakfast Club marked a break with the teen-movie conventions that had come before. Instead of relying on the staples of girlie flesh, crass humour and brainless plots, this movie focuses on characters, and is almost entirely dialogue-driven.

We are now celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Breakfast Club and yes, doesn’t that make some of us feel old? But, who would have thought that this John Hughes classic would still be Hollywood’s best attempt at presenting and deconstructing teen stereotypes? Most of Hollywood’s forays into this realm have been patronizing or unrealistic. Although The Breakfast Club came out of the “Me-generation - Greed is good’ decade, it somehow managed to successfully show us what it is like to be a teen – to feel isolated and alienated and at the same time revealed how, in so many ways, we share a common ground, even in adulthood.

The Breakfast Club begins with a collection of high school students who are attending a Saturday detention for their various misdemeanours. The movie introduces us to the characters initially as high-school stereotypes: the Brain (Anthony Michael Hall), the Princess (Molly Ringwald), the Jock (Emilio Estevez), and the Weirdo (Ally Sheedy) all find themselves stuck in detention with serial offender and stoner-delinquent John Bender (Judd Nelson in his finest, most nostril-flaring role). Bender is a little more eloquent than most delinquents, and with abrasive persistence, he chips away at his companions until he forces each of them to question their roles and re-examine who they really are. Gradually, each of the stereotypical façades crumble and we see exposed the scared, insecure, neglected or angry teen hiding beneath the mask.

One of the most interesting aspects of The Breakfast Club is its tone. The tone of the film can shift from dark to light in a moment - it allows for some of the characters’ personal revelations to feel shocking and authentic while providing lighter moments when we see them lapse into their conventional roles and be gently mocked for it. It allows for joy and fun (the dance sequence) and also for some disturbing and tragic moments of disclosure or confession, such as Judd Nelson’s depiction of Bender’s abusive home life. Between the erstwhile hip 80s soundtrack and conventional teen hi-jinks, we discover some bitter truths about self-doubt, conformity, peer-pressure and questionable parenting.

The characters may be considered clichés but their purpose is for us to be able to empathise with at least one of them – in school were we the brain, the princess, the outsider, the athlete or the troublemaker? Plus, on a deeper level, the characters resonate with us because perhaps they are all a small part of our teen psyche, one fighting the other for supremacy.

Breakfast club

The performances of the group of young actors which became known as the Brat Pack were pivotal to the movie. Each character had the chance to say something meaningful about the reality of his or her situation – which was never quite as it seemed to those observing them from the outside. The movie addresses the conflicting desires to fit in and belong to a group, yet somehow maintain one’s individuality in the face of pressure to conform - a conundrum which continues into each adult life.
It’s a film that knows exactly what it wants to do while also making it relatable for its target audience. In the hands of a lesser director this film would seem generic but Hughes makes it poignant and pertinent and also thoroughly entertaining. Hughes took a simplistic plot premise and rather than follow the predictable teen movie convention where the subjects are all absolved of their difficulties and become bosom buddies with their unlikely companions, Hughes turned it into an often uncomfortable exploration and critique of the rigid social system that operates within high school and the snobbish cliques which exist within this hierarchy.

However, The Breakfast Club perhaps missed its chance to demolish some adult stereotypes. We are introduced to the stereotype of the mean overbearing principal, Mr. Vernon (Paul Gleason), the teacher in charge of Saturday detention. Mr. Vernon is almost comical in how mean-spirited and jaded he is. During a scene with Mr. Vernon and the janitor, Carl (John Kapelos), Hughes begins to get inside the character of the teacher. When Vernon bemoans that the students have changed and become disrespectful, Carl tells him “No, you’ve changed”. There is one brief scene after a verbal battle of wills with Bender, where we see Mr. Vernon pause for a second as he leaves the detention hall - a look of despondency and regret passes over his face – his life too is not what he’d hoped for. Doesn’t he have anything better to do than spend this and every Saturday fighting with the kids in detention? Unfortunately, the movie does not expound on this. Hughes stopped where he might have introduced some humanity and depth into Mr. Vernon’s role.

The focus in the movie remains firmly on the teens, and once they have fought, smoked dope, blamed their parents, danced and bonded, the key question is raised: Are they now friends or do they revert back to their usual roles as soon as school begins again on Monday? Those who critique the film for having a contrived ‘happy ending’ weren’t paying attention. Certainly the Hollywood convention would expect them to become buddies. This movie, on the other hand, admits that on Monday, things probably won’t have changed. The truth about school is that most kids, while saying they want to be seen as more than a stereotype, are too afraid to take the risk that they may become outcast from their ‘group’. On Monday, they will each return to their comfort zone rather than assert their individuality and risk the ridicule of their ‘friends’.

Topics such as suicide, depression, social alienation, materialism, sex, and parental physical and emotional abuse are addressed. The film positively encourages the breakdown of social barriers and the importance of honesty in communication. I think the secret of the film’s ongoing endurance is that, despite its lighter moments and stereotypical roles, it is grounded in reality.

Image - IMDb.
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