SPOILER ALERT: This review will discuss key plot elements. As such, if you've never seen the movie, I encourage you to watch it first before reading.
There are some movies that everyone seems to talk about. They're the movies that, if you haven't seen them, make you feel just slightly left out. I was born in 1992, and the 80's John Hughes films were just enough before my time that I hadn't seen any of them until very recently. But for years, I've heard about The Breakfast Club.
Even if you've never seen the movie, it is such a cultural touchstone that you either know of its connection with "The Brat Pack" or the inclusion of one of the great movie songs - Don't You (Forget About Me) by Simple Minds. As I said, this film comes from the mind of director John Hughes - famous for 80s films such as this one and Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
The Breakfast Club is similar to that film in some ways, including how it portrays adults as immature caricatures. However, this film has one key exception to that rule in the character of Carl the Janitor. His character is one of the reasons why I consider this to be a better film than Ferris Bueller's Day Off. But before I delve into further analysis, let me give a quick synopsis of the film's plot.
We meet our group of delinquent teens as they are all gathering at school on a Saturday for detention - the peak of teenage nightmare scenarios. We have the popular beauty queen, Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald); the troublemaker with a rough family life, John Bender (Judd Nelson); the all-star jock with his own daddy issues, Andy Clark (Emilio Estevez); the nerd, Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall); and the introverted outcast who was never actually given detention, Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy). They all have very familiar high school identities. That's the point. This movie will take our preconceived notions about teenage identity and flip them around.
They are greeted by their seething principal - Mr. Vernon. Here is where John Hughes' propensity for immature adult characters comes into this film. Mr Vernon is a man-child. He takes out his frustrations about the state of his own life on the teenagers under his supervision. He sees them as nothing more than punk kids.
His assignment for them is to each write an essay on who they think they are and how they ended up in detention. It's given in a condescending "Who do you think you are?!" kind of way. But, really, it becomes a profound question.
Who do you think you are?
There is a circular nature to this film. At the film's beginning, we hear the now familiar song, "Don't You (Forget About Me)" as the credits roll. We then see the following quote:
Then with a crash we're taken to our setting - Shermer High School. We hear voiceover from Brian Johnson saying that the students think it's crazy for Mr. Vernon to ask such a question. To them, it's clear that Mr. Vernon does not care, that he already sees them in set identities. "You see as you want to see us," Johnson says. "in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions."
We also get insights into the family lives of each of our main characters. Johnson and Clark are both pressured by their parents, but in different ways. Standish is pampered. Bender is alone. And Reynolds is ever the outcast.
It really is an amazing feat of writing that we can be so transfixed by a group of people who basically stay in the same room for the entire film. But it is captivating, because we've all searched for identity. We remember high school, and the many pitfalls of searching for who you are among the locker-lined halls.
The movie succeeds on its well-drawn characters. These teenagers are not one-dimensional. As the film proceeds, we find that they aren't quite all that we think they are. They are more. Just as we all were more than others thought of us when we were 16.
Is your identity built on who people say you are? Or do you have an innate identity? These are questions that few films attempt to tackle in any meaningful way beyond superficial answers. "High School Films" are a familiar genre, and many of them throw around questions of identity. But I'm not sure I've ever seen a film that uses the high school paradigm to unearth such emotional depth quite like The Breakfast Club.
As the characters learn more about each other, they realize that they have more in common than they may have orginally thought.
At the same time, Mr. Vernon is struggling with his identity as well. He opens up to Carl the Janitor about how he feels the students have changed, that they've turned on him. Here, Carl is given more emotional clarity than any other adult character in this film or Ferris Bueller. He calls out Vernon's rhetoric for what it is.
It's one thing to think that we have things right when we're younger and we begin to lose some of that as we grow older. But that thought process taken to its logical conclusion is that adulthood is meaningless and our youth is the peak of our existence. I certainly don't believe that, and I was glad to see an adult character that portrayed how you can still have clarity even when your teenage years are far in the rearview mirror. The irony is that this clarity comes from a character who is a janitor - maybe the last vocation where one would expect such an outlook on life.
Any great film must begin and end well. You have to grab attention at the outset and wrap up the narrative at the end. Great films are also able to connect great beginnings and endings with a compelling narrative throughout, but the opening scene and the closing scene are always of vital importance. That is no different with this film.
In fact, I believe the two scenes are the keys to understanding the film. Look at the nuanced differences in the two essays that are read. At the beginning, we see clear lines of delineation between the identities of our characters. At the end, we see how those lines have merged. There is commonality between them. They now see themselves as a collective - The Breakfast Club - made up of unique identities. We then end with one of the most enduring movie shots in our cultural psyche - Bender walking off the field with his arm raised. We hear the movie's theme once again as the screen fades to black.
We now see them as Claire, John, Andy, Brian and Allison. We identify with their struggle. We see a lot of ourselves amid their discussions and antics in detention. Maybe the search for identity is never fully complete this side of heaven. But it's certainly nice to know that you aren't alone in the search.
Don't you forget about me, indeed.
Note on content: This film contains some sexual dialogue, but the most overt sexual content comes when one character looks up a girl's skirt and the camera takes his point of view. There is no nudity, however. There are discussions that deal with difficult topics such as domestic violence and suicide. And the film does contain some profanity. On its whole, it is relatively tame compared to more recent films, however it may not be appropriate for some younger viewers.