With an average 20-year age gap between adults and their teenage progeny, who can blame anybody for a chronic lack of understanding between them? Thankfully, once in a while a filmmaker comes along who understands both worlds and acts as a kind of translator between them. For anybody growing up in the 1980s, that filmmaker was John Hughes. And his masterpiece take on authority, insecurity, identity and indignity would forever change what it means to be a Reagan years kid stuck in high school detention. Behold…the Breakfast Club.
The story takes place at Shermer High School, 1984, where five students report for an all-day long session of Saturday detention. They are Brian Johnson (a super-student who brought a flare gun to school), Claire Standish (a lovely rich kid who skipped class to go shopping), Andrew Clark (a champion wrestler guilty of bullying a kid on the team), Allison Reynolds (a strange introvert who showed up just to be there) and John Bender (a chronic delinquent whose most recent infraction is pulling the fire alarm). They are watched over by vice principal Richard Vernon, a martinet who hates the students almost as much as he hates himself, and who tasks the five with writing a 1,000-word essay on who they think they are. The day goes by with the kids left largely unattended, and they spend their day at first clashing with each other, but slowly learning that they all have a lot more in common than their respective stereotypes would suggest. By the time their detention is through, all five have had major breakthroughs with their own issues, and are just a little bit more ready to face the trials and tribulations that await them once they return home, go back to school, and whatever else awaits them after that. Ironically, Vernon’s assignment works…just not in the way that he intended.
At first, the movie presents itself like some kind of prison movie set in a Midwestern suburban high school, with a bunch of kids (with one exception) who don’t really seem like hard-timers up against a principal/warden who almost certainly expects more from teenagers than he himself was capable of when he was their age. For a good chunk of the movie, Brian, Claire, Andrew, Allison and Bender are either trying to dodge Vernon’s stupid and arbitrary rules or just grating that they’re in weekend lockup at all. And as they do, they don’t have much outlet except to talk with each other, and this is where the movie really kicks into high gear.
Hughes has been often praised for the veracity of his dialogue, and for capturing the particular truth and cadence of teenage lingo. Not everybody in high school in the 1980s talked like they do in the Breakfast Club, but more did than didn’t, and at no point does Hughes or his actors try to make caricatures of their roles. Already pigeonholed into various stereotypes by their parents, the school itself and their fellow students, these five kids have more than enough reason to mistrust each other right off the bat. It takes little provocation for them to go at each others’ throats, but before long, whatever slights they inflict upon each other reveal their own pain over their own issues. It just goes to show that you can’t be stuck with somebody forever without finding some kind of common ground with them, especially if there aren’t people on the outside trying to drive wedges between you.
What really makes the Breakfast Club work is its extended session of involuntary group therapy for teenagers desperately trying to find themselves, which resounds with anybody in the audience who ever related to the pressure to fit in, the pressure to succeed, the pressure to endure punishment you don’t deserve, the pressure to be liked, and the pressure to just be yourself. As each of the students eventually breaks down over the particular emotional baggage they’ve been carrying, they reveal a central hypocrisy that has bedeviled young kids for at least half a century: they are relentlessly told to be themselves, all while the same people are telling them that the selves they want to be aren’t acceptable. This hit home especially during the latchkey days of the 1980s, when a generation of kids went through free-range upbringings because both their parents were working. But what the kinds in the Breakfast Club are dealing with hardly began or ended in the Reagan years. And kids are always going to need space and time to open their hearts to each other.
The moment of truth in the Breakfast Club is a little Easter egg that reveals itself in the establishing shots of the school, and then is revisited near the end, but only the extremely sharp-eyed or repeat viewer is likely to catch it. Carl the janitor is a guy we see in only two scenes, but the second one is when he catches Vernon going through confidential student files in search for dirt on people. The conversation between the two is especially revealing, not just because it shows how much Vernon hates his job, but how much he hates himself for having taken it. Meanwhile, we’re reminded that Carl was once the school’s “Man of the Year” and never did much after that. Nobody likes peaking in high school, but there’s a difference between knowing you never went too far in life, and deciding to pay your frustrations forward on kids who don’t deserve it. When Carl asks Vernon what he would have thought of himself when he was only 16, Vernon has no answer. And when Brian turns in a single essay for the group, we get the feeling that Vernon has been disarmed enough to not punish the kids further for blowing off his assignment. After all, they got more out of one day of detention than he got out of 20 years of teaching. And he knows whose fault that is.