John Hughes is a name that has become synonymous with growing up as a teenager in the 1980s. Having started as a writer for National Lampoon, he wrote two of the most seminal comedies of the decade, namely National Lampoon’s Vacation and Mr. Mom, both released in 1983. Then, in 1984, Hughes not only wrote but also directed Sixteen Candles, which was a hit with both critics and audiences, and is still regarded as a classic of its time. Since it was much more of a lighthearted comedy and slightly more inline with some of the other screwball teen comedies of the early 80s like Porky’s, Screwballs, and, to an extent, The Last American Virgin, Hughes decided to follow it up with a film that took a closer examination of what life was like for the average teen in high school. Tackling issues like figuring out how you fit in, being locked down into a specific clique, and the pressures teens are put upon by their parents and their fellow students, that film would go on to be one of the most important and beloved films of the 1980s, The Breakfast Club.
Our film starts off on a Saturday morning at Shermer High School, where we have five students from different social classes and school cliques who are forced to come in for detention. These students include the nerdy kid Brian Johnson, played by Anthony Michael Hall, the athletic Andrew Clarke, played by Emilio Estevez, the reclusive and strange Allison Reynolds, played by Ally Sheedy, the popular young socialite Claire Standish, played by Molly Ringwald, and the reckless criminal John Bender, played by Judd Nelson. Under the watchful eye of Principal Vernon, played by Paul Gleason, the five are there for their own reasons that are revealed as the movie goes along, and they spend the day eventually getting to know one another and finding out that they’re not as different as they think. Truths are shared, secrets are revealed, friendships/relationships are formed, and they all grow as young people trying to find their place in the world.
The setup really can’t be any simpler than that: five teens stuck in detention spend the day eventually learning about who they really are. As simple as it is, it really works, and there’s a lot more that goes on besides that. What makes this film truly special is that despite it obviously being in the 80s (the music, the clothes, the hairstyles, etc), this is a really timeless film as the issues it addresses are still applicable to young people today. All of us who have been through high school have experienced at least some of the same things as these kids, whether it’s how Andrew feels pressured to be #1 all the time because of his overbearing father, Brian being upset that he got an F on a shop assignment and how it will affect his grades, or even Claire’s having to always maintain her image and go along with everything her friends say. Each of the five characters is relatable in their own way to how we were in high school. Given that John Hughes was in his 30s when he wrote this, it’s amazing how he perfectly captures how teens think and act, almost as if he’s still a teenager himself, but in the body of a fully-grown adult.
The five leads all fit into their characters perfectly. Anthony Michael Hall, who’s best known for being the nerdy kid in movies like Sixteen Candles and Weird Science, really gets to shine as Brian, who’s arguably the most relatable one of the group. Emilio Estevez, while seeming a bit bland at times, is still great as Andrew, especially in some of his more emotional scenes such as when he tells the story of what he did to get into detention and why he did it. Molly Ringwald, though initially a bit stand-offish, does become both likable and sympathetic as the movie goes on, and she even tells some truths that, while painful, are pretty true of how certain cliques interact with each other in high school. Ally Sheedy, though largely quiet in the first act, does grow as a character once she does talk, and she’s probably the second most relatable character next to Brian since at least some of us have felt like an outcast at that time. And of course, there’s Judd Nelson, who absolutely steals the show as John Bender, as he has so much manic energy and says so many quotable lines that it’s hard not to love the guy, especially in the scenes where he’s telling off the principal. Gleason is also fun as the principal, who tries to maintain his authority figure status despite some of the more ridiculous stuff that happens to him, and a special mention goes to John Kapelos as Carl, the janitor who probably understands the kids more than they know themselves.
If I did have any complaints about the film (and it’s so minor that it probably doesn’t really matter), it’s that the movie doesn’t necessarily have a straightforward plot. A lot of the film is kind of a series of events strung together, almost feeling episodic. Like one scene, they’re running around the school trying to get to Bender’s locker without being caught. Then, Andrew and Brian are chatting when Allison joins in and dumps her purse out to them, essentially dumping all her problems on them. Granted, there is a narrative to these scenes, and it does really capture the feeling of being stuck at this school with the five of them just trying to find a way to pass the time while also growing closer together. All in all, this is an absolute wonder of a film that’s still just as relevant now as it was back then. Every one of us has been a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal at some point in our lives, and The Breakfast Club is a great examination of how each of us embodies each of those characteristics all at once.