If you don’t know his name, you most likely know and love his movies already.
If you are a fan of “The Breakfast Club”, and I don’t know anyone in their 30’s or 40’s who isn’t… then you are probably also a fan of:
- Sixteen Candles
- Pretty in Pink
- Ferris Buehller’s Day Off
- Some Kind of Wonderful
- Weird Science
I’ll admit to not recalling much of SKOW, but “Club,” “Pink,” and “Ferris” are still some of the most enjoyable films I have ever experienced. And, hey, Weird Science? One of my absolute favorite comedies of the 80’s and also the source of many a fantasy of Kelly LeBroc, but I digress…
Somehow, between 1984 and 1987 John Hughes managed to tap into the psyche of every American teenager with his very true storytelling. He managed to capture that very real sensation of being an outcast that so many of us felt as a teen.
For the me, the best of these films for exploring how teens feel and interact with each other and the world around them is The Breakfast Club.
Belonging to something is such an important part of the High School experience. Your friends at the time are how you begin to create your personal identity. As a young child you are the product of your parents. You don’t do anything that they aren’t an active part of. Every activity is done under their supervision and approval. And that approval is important and necessary in your development. A parent’s love is the world to a young child.
But High School… High School is where it all changes. Suddenly we no longer identify ourselves solely through our parents eyes. High School is a four year turmoil, but it feels like we are suddenly grown up. But we aren’t. Not yet really. But it’s the starting point of our independence. The genesis of who we will become as adults.
We start the process of cutting that emotional umbilical cord from our parents. It’s hard for the teen, and as an adult now I also realize how hard it really is for the parent as well.
The Breakfast Club is fundamentally about that High School age exploration of identity. It’s about fitting in when you no longer feel as though you fit in anywhere. You are removing yourself from the security blanket of your parents and desperately trying to fill that void with the acceptance of your peers. Any acceptance by them is welcome. And any scorn or ridicule from them can be devestating.
In seeking out the acceptance of our peers, and avoiding the hardships of non-acceptance, teens often find themselves forming cliques. Groups of friends with similar interests and fears. In these cliques we find the acceptance we so desire and the safety net of understanding. But these cliques are dangerous. They make us start out our journey of self-discovery on very shaky ground. Instead of being open to all types of people, we start creating social classes. Indeed, many of the cliques are just High School representations of the particular upbringing we had at home.
The Breakfast Club uses these cliques as the great starting point of our protagonists’ journeys. In one day these 5 kids grow, hopefully, beyond their preconceived notions of who each one of them is and find their common ground together.
In it’s simplest terms the story starts out with these characters:
- The Brain
- The Athlete
- The Princess
- The Criminal
- The Basketcase
Each one of these archetypes is immediately identifiable and Hughes uses that to quickly establish who these characters are for the audience and for each other in the film.
As the story starts out, each one of them behaves as they are expected to behave. The Jock is disciplined and aggressive. The Princess acts like she’s above everything and totally self-absorbed. The Brain is sheepish and nerdy. The Basketcase keeps to herself, but has a remarkably artistic side to her (dandruff snow anyone?), and the Criminal acts out against everyone… desperately trying to puff himself up like he’s the toughest person in the room. Like he’s invincible to the attacks brought upon him by the rest of the world.
Each of these characters is wonderfully portrayed by Emilio Esteves (The Athlete), Anthony Michael Hall (The Brain), Molly Ringwald (The Princess), Ally Sheedy (The Basketcase) and Judd Nelson (The Criminal). There’s a wonderful subtlety that each of these actors brings to their characters. They don’t overdo it, each portrayal is nuanced. It’s easy to fall into the Stereotypes of who these characters are, and many films that have tried to capture the same feel as The Breakfast Club has failed to find the same magic because they get lost in the Stereotypes and lose sight of the things that make the characters real in this film.
The labels these kids have for each other, the stereotypes that they have found themselves in are not truly who they are. This is an important fact in this film, and I think it’s the element that is missing in all the copy cats. These 5 people are not stereotypes. They are real people. They are complicated people. They are, ultimately, all cut from the same cloth. They are teenagers who are suffering through the odreal of creating their sense of self.
It’s that common ground that makes this movie work. It’s the way that these kids… right from the get go… may not like each other, but when faced with ratting any one of them out to the authority figure, Mr. Vernon, not a one of them would dare do it. No matter how different they feel individually from one another, the fact remains that they are all together in defining their sense of independence from the grown ups of the world. In that they stand together as a unit. Protecting one another from the dangers of authority.
And once that authority is removed, they go back to attacking each other. But from the get go there’s a sense that each one of them would like to just find acceptance from the people they are with. Judd Nelson’s “Bender” has eyes for Molly Ringwald’s “Claire” long before either of them admit it to themselves or to each other. Bender plays his desires off as bravado and teasing, but it’s only because he can’t be honest with himself about how he feels about her. Maybe because he hasn’t developed enough on his own yet to believe he deserves The Princess. You never really know, but that’s the power of his story. He’s so beaten up, by his parents, by the school staff, by the other kids in school… you come to understand why he acts out so much. It’s not that he’s a bad kid… it’s that he is just longing for someone to show him some compassion. Claire, for her part, finds Bender attractive in that dangerous “rebel without a cause” kind of way. He’s so outside of her sphere of influence, I think, she find him intriguing and mysterious. While she’s outwardly protesting his lewd behavior toward her Ringwald manages to show us through wonderfully subtle glances how exciting his advances are to her. But she, just like Bender, can’t quite come to terms yet with what that means for her. It’s a wonderful dynamic that really grows as the film progresses. As they each peel back the layers and reveal more and more to each other who they really are.
The same can be said for Ally Sheedy’s “Allison” and Emilio Estevez’ “Andrew.” He’s so wrapped up in his inability to create his self-identity that he has to inflict pain on another kid to try and re-inforce his father’s acceptance. He can’t let go of needing his parent’s approval, though he desperately wants to be free of that burden. In many ways she’s the same. She feels as though her parents ignore her. And she wants to feel their acceptance as well. In fact her initial appearance in the film is one of someone who is an outcast. She wears her hood over her face, her hair is always dropping in front of her eyes. She has adopted a physical manifestation of how she feels her parents see her. As someone who isn’t really there. Eventually she opens up. She takes some control over her life and engages these 4 other characters, specifically to Andrew. I think the two of them find in each other a connection that begins with the way they are both needing their parents to accept them. To feel like their parents want them, for who they are, no matter what. Throughout the film she’s trying to get him to open up his pain to her. To really spill what’s going on with him. At first he’s resistant, he’s guarded. And understandably so. If the one person you are looking to for acceptance in the world (his Dad) thinks you are a screw up and that you are likely to blow your chances in life you’d have a hard time opening up to anyone about that pain. Allison, for her part, wants to open up to someone. She feels so neglected and unaccepted by her parents she is desperate for someone to open up to. So much so that she finally just dumps out her bag in front of Andrew and Michael Hall’s “Brian.” In this act she isn’t just inviting them to look at her belongings. She laying out her life to them. She’s baring her soul. And when they act like what she’s laid before them is a big joke she is genuinely hurt and upset that she’s taken this chance on them. Andrew recognizes her pain and he finally reaches out to her. He asks her about her parents, her home life. He doesn’t offer her advice or a way out, he just nods his head and gives her what she’s wanted from him all along… his understanding and his compassion. Eventually he opens up to the entire group about what it is he did to get in to detention, but I think he is only able to finally get to that after he finds his connection to Allison. After he’s found a sympathetic soul to open up to.
Brian is the one character who doesn’t hook up with anyone (even Mr. Vernon “hooks” up with Carl the Janitor in a sense). But what Brian does find is a connection to all four of his fellow students. He too has his troubles with acceptance from his parents. His grades are how he tries to win that acceptance from them. So much so that he is devastated by the B- he is going to get in Shop. He also has his issues with the cliques in school. He feels ignored by the Princesses and ridiculed by the Criminals and by association with Andrew’s victim we get a sense of the torment a Brain can suffer at the hands of the Athletes. But as time goes on in the film, as each character opens up about their troubled family life, about their inability to be openly interactive with those outside of their cliques… Brian finds himself on common ground with all of them. He finally opens up about his dance with suicide and how the pressures to perform weigh on him constantly. This is something Andrew can greatly relate to, and is probably why we see the two of them chumming about together at the start of the “party” in the library. Brian’s revelation of his suicidal thoughts is met with compassion from all. The group as a whole seems to have an understanding of what Brian is going through. And in that moment I think Brian finds he’s not alone. That there is acceptance there. The ultimate expression of that is the respect he is given by Claire when she asks him to write the paper for all of them. She admits that they don’t really want to write it, but that they want him to write it because he is the smartest one there and that they trust him. They trust him. With those few words she’s given him a great gift. Acceptance and inclusion.
I love The Breakfast Club for many reasons. It has an outstanding soundtrack, it stars are the 80’s Brat Pack… but for me… the enjoyment of this movie comes from the incredibly raw exploration of these characters. From the writing to the performances The Breakfast Club stands out as one of the most true examinations of what it is to be a teenager in cinematic history. And 23 years on, it’s still resonating with teens and serves as reminder to us grown ups that it’s not easy making that transition from child to adult.
Finally to end this entry, let me leave you with a list of other John Hughes films to watch… all of them great… though you might not have known they were also from the great Mr. Hughes:
- Mr. Mom (written by)
- Vacation (screenplay)
- European Vacation (screenplay)
- Planes, Trains and Automobiles (written by)
- She’s Having a Baby (writer)
- Uncle Buck (written by)
- Christmas Vacation (written by)
- Home Alone (written by)
- Career Opportunities (written by)
- 101 Dalmations (screenplay)
- Flubber (screenplay)
- Maid in Manhattan (story as Edmond Dantès)
Go forth and enjoy some of these great films!
And please! Leave your comments below!