“So, what’s your favorite film?” The question is bound to arise. Usually it’s question asked on the second date. Or possibly just a filler question one might ask while waiting on line through two showings of the latest summer blockbuster. (Well, actually given the quality of films these days and the availability of “alternative ways of seeing the film”, perhaps this scenario isn’t quite so current anymore, but I digress…). Being a film aficionado, often I’ve thought of how I’d answer the question given the absurdity of trying to identify one film amongst the hundreds — possibly even close to a thousand — films I’ve seen. Maybe I’ll prepare one answer for business scenarios…one that will impress. And maybe another for the intellectual crowd. Perhaps I could keep five or six films and just pull them out when it’s appropriate. Or maybe take the non-committal route that many others take: “Oh, there are just so many films. I could never choose one!”
The Empire Strikes Back was always an easy answer for me. It actually was one of the films that I’ve seen at least 20 or so times and each time I can usually find something else to take from it. In each new showing, I’ll find some detail that I missed or some line that I could only appreciate now having seen the rest of the films. Then there was a time when love jones would be my response. It might be one of my favorite romantic comedies, and for several reasons. The mood that it creates, the chase between the destined couple… more than any other romantic comedy that I can recall — at least for me — it reminds me of all of the ways that you approach a relationship hoping to put your best foot forward as “calm, cool and collected” — yet love has a way of bringing your true self to the surface. I remember how cool Darius looked onstage… only to stumble a bit during subsequent meetings with Nina. And then there’s Terminator and Flash Gordon and Lost in Translation and Pulp Fiction and Magnolia and so many other films that I could pull off the shelf and just get lost in their respective worlds. But strangely over the years there has been one film that has withstood the test of time and for me, barring some great epic that changes my life, has been and will be my favorite film ever…
“…And these children
that you spit on
as they try to change their worlds
are immune to your consultations.
They’re quite aware
of what they’re going through…”
….The Breakfast Club. Yes, that’s right. That Breakfast Club. On the surface to many, it seems like a cute, teeny, 80s movie. But having seen it, probably nearing 30…maybe 40 times now, I can tell you that this is much more than your average teen 80s movie. From the opening quote, (certainly not typical of most 80s Private School/Ski Patrol/Nerd vs. Jocks, etc. movie) you kinda get the feeling that you might be in for more than you bargained. And as the film plays out, you learn so much about the strange things that happen between strangers when forced into situations of social interaction. You’ll also learn a lot about yourself.
(If you haven’t seen the film, please — go check it out. What I write can only be appreciated after having enjoyed the film. Plus there are spoilers a plenty to follow.)
OK, so what’s so great about the movie? Well, for one, I appreciate the minimalist approach to the set and characters. We only see, at most, seven characters throughout most of the film… (including the kids parents, maybe eleven actors in total.) The set is, for the most part, the library of Schermer High School. When we meet these characters, by simply watching the way in which they arrive at the school tells us a lot about the baggage that they bring to the library that afternoon. Watching each kid leave the comfort of their parents car (for the lucky ones, at least) to spend an afternoon in school minus the safety of their peer groups and eventually bearing their souls about the pressure they’re under. Immense pressure. Unbearable peer pressure. Pressure like the pressure of being a successful high school athlete… or a prom queen…. or perhaps just the pressure to be an student and to keep a high GPA. Then tragically there’s the not-so-ordinary pressure associated with not having a traditional nuclear all American family upbringing. It’s the pressure that comes when you realize that your life is absent of the problems of “normal kids” and if you’re John Bender (Judd Nelson) or Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy), your problems are only beginning when you get home from school. Subsequent viewings of the film revealed how even their entrances entrances foreshadowed lives of parental abuse and neglect — and it doesn’t take a psychologist to conclude that their school lives were a direct reflection of that lack of love and neglect at home.
One of the things that always makes me smile about this film is the humor. This film is truly funny. The exchange between the kids is pretty hilarious and adding Principal Vernon into the mix makes it unforgettable.
Another great thing about the film is that it comes from my favorite decade — that’s right, the 80s. It may not have been the best of times and it might go down in history as one of the most gilded eras in American history, but I truly did love the 80s. And this is undoubtedly an 80s film. Everything about their dress, style, speech and mannerisms screams 1984. And if that doesn’t do it for you, the ever popular “montage scene” towards the end of the film is a pretty big clue.
While these are reasons to fall in love with The Breakfast Club, what won the film over for me is what happens about halfway in. You meet these characters that are almost icons for the groups that they belong to — athletes, superficial beautiful people, introverts with psychological problems, the tough kid with the hard home life and the nerd who has to get an ‘A’ or else he’ll be asked “what happened?”. Right along with each of the kids, you begin to form opinions about the lives of everyone else there. Hey, it’s what we do — we see you, we observe you, maybe we take a few minutes to exchange a few words with you… and right away we think we know you. Of all of the characters there, John Bender seems to be the one with the toughest exterior of the bunch. At first glance, he reminds me of every guy who ever routinely pulled the fire alarm, stole from someone’s locker, took some kid’s lunch money or set fire to the wastebasket in the boy’s bathroom. You watch him for about 20 minutes and he falls right into the stereotype that you imagined he would. He starts hazing the nerd, causing friction between the group and right away we think, “I knew it.” About then, there’s an exchange between Bender and Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez), the amateur wrestling star. Andrew mentions to John that he’s so insignificant to the school that it’s almost like “he doesn’t even count”… that “he could just disappear and nobody would care”. We see John kinda shrug it off and keep making jokes. But much later…after the group dynamic has changed a bit and they’ve actually taken the time to have real meaningful exchange… after they seem to accept John in the group, John reminds Andrew (and the group, as they seemed to endorse the sentiment) that, “hey, remember — ‘I don’t even count’. I could just disappear and no one would notice.” It’s amazing to watch this play out. You always knew the tough kid had feelings somehow, but when he brings them back up to the group and reminds them that he didn’t forget, it was just priceless.
It seems kinda silly, but if you’ve ever been a kid in a big high school, you know the sheer exhilaration of walking down the hallway knowing you should be in class….but you aren’t….and without a pass. It’s recreated in such incredible fashion when the group decides to ban together and try to make their way to retrieve something from one of the lockers. It’s funny, it’s exciting….but it’s also revealing. These kids from completely different social groups find themselves covering for each other. Maybe it can be argued that they found a common enemy in ‘the establishment’. But I’d like to think that it has something to do with those few hours of bonding that caused them to drop their preconceptions and just see each other for what they were: kids going through the same stuff.
There have been a bunch of John Hughes movies — and I’ve seen and enjoyed just about every one. But none of the teen movies — Hughes’ or otherwise — takes quite the serious turn that this one does. Not Sixteen Candles, not Pretty in Pink, not Weird Science. Few scenes in a typical teen film are quite as revealing as the one in The Breakfast Club where the kids really start bearing their souls — willingly — in a circle that is reminiscent of every self-help group we’ve seen before. We learn some pretty heavy stuff. We have it confirmed that John Bender has a pretty abusive relationship with his dad (and it probably extends to fights between his parents). We learn that Andrew is probably buckling under the pressure that peers have put upon him — culminating with the physical abuse of another kid in Brian’s (Anthony Michael Hall) social class. Claire (Molly Ringwald) seems to have it the easiest of everyone, but I would venture to say that her pressure is not very different from the kind that Andrew suffers from (although we don’t learn very much about it). Tragically Brian considered suicide after ruining his grade-point average. And even though we learn that the gun was only a flare gun, the pressure he describes, his very real tears and the serious way that he retells his thoughts of suicide are somewhat chilling.
Though each person’s pressure is quite real, I always found Ally Sheedy’s character to be the most tragic. Not only does she appear to be neglected (she gets out of the back seat of a Seville — in contrast to the other kids who sat in the front seat with their parents) but even in the group dynamic, she isn’t really able to share. She struggles to articulate her thoughts. Her character is every young person growing up without the love of their parents. Perhaps it’s because they work too hard and aren’t home. Or because they’re divorced and pass her between each other like a hot potato. Or perhaps they just don’t understand each other. Whatever the reason, she has some deep issues manifested by how she dresses and interacts socially.
What always seemed to surprise me about the movie is the way that it resolves: Claire and Bender seem to start a relationship… okay, that seems kinda obvious, albeit a bit strange. After all, they shared some pretty heated words. But then again, isn’t that the definition of love? Not arguing would be a sign of indifference. These are the kinds of things lovers do — or so I suppose.
It’s not unusual that Brian goes home alone. I guess the group all paired up and who else but the nerd ends up all alone. (I always kinda chuckle when I look at how physically huge Anthony Michael Hall is now and how arguably he’s had the most successful career, short of Emilio Estevez. It’s almost as if he’s personifying the phrase “revenge of the nerd”.) But what was strange to me was the other relationship. Andrew Clark and Allison Reynolds. Huh? I mean, Andrew clearly was hitting up Claire almost the entire afternoon until it was clear that the romantic tension between Bender and Claire was too much to overcome. But I don’t ever recall seeing him give an indication that he really cared about Allison. Well, maybe there was that scene in the hallway when she talked to him about Vodka on the way to get the sodas. And then there was the time when she emptied her bag and they had a conversation about her parents. However, it didn’t seem as if Brian was ever truly interested until after Claire decided to be a bit charitable and take Allison in for a little makeover. It’s actually kinda ridiculous and shallow to see how Andrew notices Allison now because of her physical appearance… but previously kinda overlooked her. But then again, remembering that this is an 80s film, I’m guessing this would be true to 80s form — a superficial crush forming into a superficial relationship in a superficial decade.
What is always most tragic about the movie (and what it says about life and how we treat each other) is that even after they have a great afternoon of bonding and learning about each other and sharing… Claire reveals the sad truth about life between different classes. When Brian asks the group if they think they’ll be friends after this day, everyone seems a bit skeptical. Some more than others, but one doesn’t need to think too hard to realize that this group bonding isn’t going to last. In The Breakfast Club lies all the tragedy of West Side Story, Romeo and Juliet, Brokeback Mountain, and any other look into life where because of social situations and norms, a truly genuine and wonderful gift of friendship can’t be, because we’re worried about “what they might think”.
A sequel has often been rumored and is probably never going to happen at this point. But it has always intrigued me to think of what might have happened in the lives of each of the characters. That has the potential makings of an incredible film (if handled properly.) Handled poorly and it could have all the charm of “A Very Brady Christmas”. The richness of The Breakfast Club lies in the fact that although the movie only runs 97 minutes and although the characters only meet for an afternoon, we can pretty much conclude what happens to each character with a certain degree of confidence. This can probably be debated until the cows come home, but in my own “Breakfast Club sequel” — the one that happens in my mind — I see the following: Brian goes on to start up his own tech company and basically becomes Mark Cuban-like. Claire’s relationship with John doesn’t end immediately, but it doesn’t last beyond the first semester of college when she meets all new folks and he sticks out very obviously — ironically everything that the group was trying to condemn in their fateful Saturday afternoon gathering. She goes on to be a flight attendant and marry a wealthy business owner — for two years until they divorce. Bender works at the airport as a baggage handling clerk. Andrew and Allison’s relationship doesn’t even last through the week. The peer pressure that he’s under just ruins even his best attempts to bring her around “the boys”. They laugh and make snide remarks. Andrew goes on to have a pretty mediocre career as either a high school coach, a car salesman or a personal trainer. Tragically Allison makes a few attempts to take her own life — unsuccessfully. Eventually she becomes an artist in Soho, meets some friends who she identifies with and runs a pretty successful hall exhibiting different art (including occasionally, he own). In her spare time, she counsels teens who have problems.
I think The Breakfast Club should be required viewing for any kid who is going into high school. Not because I think it will cause them to cross social barriers and make friends beyond whatever groups might be constricting them. But because at the heart of The Breakfast Club is the notion that “we’re all kids with our own individual problems — mine might not be yours, but we all have em. Let’s do all that we can to make it through this most awkward time in our lives so that we can start to control our own destinies”. I think the song Popular by Nada Surf is such an incredible song and is truly not only the “teenage guide to popularity” but, in some cases, the teenage guide to surviving those tough high school years.
I watch kids who struggle with problems that parents often wave off. They say things like, “darling, you haven’t even begun to know what problems are yet”. They deny their feelings of love towards their siblings. They reject their urges to pursue careers that aren’t socially acceptable despite the fact that in them might lie the unique talent the likes of Hillary Swank or Peter Jennings – neither of whom finished high school. I often reflect on the Columbine and other similar tragedies. I think about the OutKast song Toilet Tisha that chillingly retells the thoughts of a girl named Tisha who contemplates suicide (and apparently succeeds in taking her own life) only because she’s pregnant and doesn’t know what else to do. I think about the movie Elephant and how I sat and stared at the credits for about 20 minutes after seeing the movie and not really knowing how to feel. But in each of these tragedies, I think of the five at Schermer High School who, against their own desire, met with four of their peers. And although the purpose of their afternoon was to reflect on “who you think you are”, what each person got out of that afternoon was more rewarding than any of the adults could have known. They learned about each of the other groups and how they were going through the same kinds of problems.
I eat lunch later in the afternoon in Manhattan around two neighboring high schools. While I enjoy traveling down the streets without the lunch hour crowds bustling about, there is one aspect that puts a damper on it all. The children. They seem to have turned up their disrespect and their energy to levels beyond what I thought was capable. I often tell myself that we were the same way, but the truth is that these kids are different. The technology that they’ve grown up in and their awareness of things that were normally kept from children their age should make them smarter. However, in eavesdropping on their conversations, it appears to have only made them… less intelligent. It scares me. Perhaps it shouldn’t. Perhaps I’m only getting a look into the “release” that they experience after the walls and chains that hold them from 8am – 3pm are released. But I share the same kind of worry that Principal Vernon showed in Paul Gleason’s talk with Carl the janitor. And he’s right. Someday these kids will be in charge of our destiny. But perhaps instead of shrugging them off or denying them, they’d be more sensitive to our feelings if we were more sensitive to theirs.
One of the most prolific moments in The Breakfast Club happens when the group talks about their parents. They have the same discussion that every one of us has had about our parents with each other and ponder the same horrifying thought: “Will I be like them when I’m older?” And even then in her teens (in the film), Ally Sheedy clues us into the fact that we always knew, but were too embarrassed to realize. When you get old, your heart does seem to die. It has to. Otherwise we’d be paying more attention to these little adults that were a few years from joining the workforce, paying taxes and voting for our leaders. It’s the same reason why kids always chuckle if I can ask whether or not they can picture their mom or dad at 10 years old. It’s tough to do. And I think it’s in large part because of that fact.
Whenever I’m down, all I have to do is reach for the first shelf on my DVD collection and pull out The Breakfast Club. As much as it delves into the psychological questions about teens and adults, group dynamics, questions of class and finance, above all it just puts me in the best mood after I’ve seen it. About once a year, I’ll reach for it on a Saturday afternoon and after that I’ll be ready to take on anything. It’s uplifting. It’s a reminder that despite the differences that we come to the table with, that if we sit and talk them out, eventually we’ll realize that we have a lot more in common than we realize. If it were up to me, I’d put a DVD of The Breakfast Club in every high school orientation package. No, it won’t stop kids from being kids and I’m sure that we’ll still have the same group dynamic, but if this film has any of the appeal for them as it does for me, they’ll realize that this four-year eternity of judgment and struggle does eventually end and life on the other side is what you make it… you just have to stick it out as best you can.
Dear Mr. Vernon,
We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in dentention for whatever it was we did wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms — in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question?
The Breakfast Club
Best. Movie. Ever.