This has been the week for retrospectives, between my Pretty Woman post and this. Thirty-one years ago yesterday – March 24, 1984 – the “Breakfast Club” met each other for the first time during that fateful Saturday detention at Shermer High School in Chicago. The John Hughes film detailing their exploits turned thirty years old last month, and tomorrow is the first of a two-day limited theatrical rerelease event for The Breakfast Club.
What even is a “breakfast club?” The movie never really explains, not even when Anthony Michael Hall (Brian Johnson, “The Brain”) namedrops the title in the letter-reading voiceover at the end of the film, an ending which still raises goosebumps after repeat viewings. It means whatever you want it to mean in your life, just like you’re supposed to identify with and relate to the characters’ stereotypes, one and all: Emilio Estevez’s “The Athlete” (Andy Clark), Judd Nelson’s “The Criminal” (John Bender), Molly Ringwald’s “The Princess” (Claire Standish), and Ally Sheedy’s “The Basket Case” (Allison Reynolds).
The Breakfast Club’s soundtrack proved to be the American breakthrough for Scottish band Simple Minds and their new wave masterpiece, “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” Entertainment Weekly ranked the coming-of-age tragicomedy, complete with poetic lyrics from David Bowie’s “Changes” on the title card, as Number One on their list of the finest high school movies in cinematic history. It’s a film that defined a generation, with its “Brat Pack” cast becoming for teenagers in the 1980s what the “Rat Pack” was for young people in the 1960s, what the “Frat Pack” was for adolescents in the 1990s.
That’s not to say that it’s dated, because it isn’t – thematically, it’s no less relevant today than it was in its heyday (aesthetically and stylistically, however, that’s up for debate). Stupid people are apt to quip that a modern “breakfast club” would spend all day staring at their phones instead of interacting with each other, but that’s assuming Assistant Principal Dick Vernon (Paul Gleason) doesn’t confiscate their electronics first, and, also, CELL PHONES HAVEN’T REPLACED FACE-TO-FACE CONVERSATION – THEY JUST SUPPLEMENT IT. Do you have any idea just how old and removed you make yourself sound when you act like smartphones are the worst thing to happen to humanity in a world full of, oh, I don’t know, genocide, for example?
High school is a tough phase of life for everyone involved, from the “criminals” of the world to the “princesses,” and everything in between. We all get treated like children even though we’re more adult than we ever were before, and we’re all punished for new thoughts and new feelings which are beyond our control, be it a weekend detention or be it something a little bit less literal. This is what makes us the same in spite of the differences we impose upon ourselves to try and make sense of all the things life has to offer, and this is how an “athlete” was able to wind up with a “basket case” by the end of the film, when they are forced to coexist together for a day and discover themselves in one another in an environment where even a “brain” can get in trouble.
And therein lies the movie’s brilliance. The characters are realistic and complex; even someone as unsympathetic as Dick Vernon has his moment of contemplation with school janitor Carl Reed (John Kapelos), the wisest mind out of the bunch. The representatives of these different cliques fight just as much as they connect, and the ending is as powerful as it is because it’s so ambiguous – you hope the Breakfast Club will stay good friends after Bender’s fist pump in the football field fades to black and the credits roll, but they openly acknowledge that they may not want to be seen together in the future, and so the feeling you get is more “nostalgic” than it is “hopeful,” mourning for something from the past rather than looking forward to something in the future.
Thank God the movie indsutry didn’t capitalize on the film’s success with a sequel, because that would’ve killed it. Because it ends, the movie never ends, just like high school ends every year at graduation for another class of kids, but never leaves our memories, almost universally. That’s the thing about high school – it’s over without you even realizing it, because you’re so eager to get out of there, and all those experiences and all those friendships you thought were meaningful at the time eventually get lost in the overwhelm of adulthood.
Is “Overwhelm” A Noun? Now It Is. Or Is That An Adjective? This Subhead Is Beginning To Sound Like A Panic! At The Disco Song (Speaking Of High School…)
John Hughes was a comedic genius who understood the spirit of youth. He was thirty-five years old by the time he wrote and directed The Breakfast Club, his high school years spent in the 1960s, but he set his masterpiece in the 1980s and created something timeless because he never forgot what growing up is like. Other examples of this youthful energy in his filmography include National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), Sixteen Candles (1984), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Pretty in Pink (1986), and Home Alone (1990).
With Molly Ringwald as his muse, Hughes told the truth without preaching at or condescending to his target audience, like “abstinence porn” The Twilight Saga in all its puritanical, pro-life nonsense. Anthony Michael Hall gets to keep Ringwald’s stolen panties at the end of Sixteen Candles, Matthew Broderick gets away with truancy in Ferris Bueller, Macaulay Culkin is sadistically (but hilariously) violent toward Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern in Home Alone, and the Breakfast Club shares a joint in the school library whilst waxing philosophical about everything from suicide and domestic abuse to sex and music, all without getting caught. Your teen years aren’t about learning “right” versus “wrong” – you’re already beaten over the head with those things as a child; your teen years are all about growing and changing, doing things you never thought you’d do before, doing things you’ll never get to do again.
The Breakfast Club is so much more than just a way for millennial hipsters to pretend they’re decades older than they actually are. It’s not a mere eighties artifact – it’s as much a classic about adolescent rebellion as The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (a book I can’t stand, on an unrelated note), and you don’t have to be a hipster to “get” it. Childhood is something we’ve all had to go through once, whether it’s something that’s behind you or something you’re experiencing right now, and perhaps the hardest thing about young adulthood is realizing just how fleeting it is to be a kid, when you’re most full of life but life as you know it is coming to an end.
Movies like The Breakfast Club speak to that forever angsty, inner voice inside all of us, the voice we had when our vocal cords started cracking, a voice that only John Hughes could hear, a voice that lives on through his films even after he (ironically) died young, a voice that reminds us of simpler times when we thought we knew everything before we found out just how little we truly know, a voice that begs us to keep it alive no matter how much we outgrow it because we’d be betraying ourselves if we didn’t and we’d become the very grown-ups who persecuted us with their own obliviousness, a voice that tells us…
…Dare I Say It?
“Don’t you forget about me.”