I can tell you a lot about The Breakfast Club. That it was originally called Detention. That it was supposed to be John Hughes’ first film as a director, but a script he wrote after it, Sixteen Candles, made it to the screen first. That Sixteen Candles began a relationship with Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall that led to them appearing in The Breakfast Club. That Shermer, the fictional setting of the Hughes films, is based on the Chicago suburb of Northbrook where Hughes, a Michigan native, spent his teen years. That Universal feared it would flop upon its February 1985 release. That it did not flop, instead becoming so beloved that it was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2016 and recently received a home video re-release as part of the Criterion Collection. There’s no official film canon, but these sorts of honors come close. Not that The Breakfast Club needed them to seem canonical. Ask anyone for the definitive teen movie of the 1980s and chances are this will be the first answer you get.
Here’s a question I couldn’t really answer until revisiting the film again via that new Blu-ray: Do I even like The Breakfast Club?
That shouldn’t be a tough one. But The Breakfast Club is a movie I’ve been hot and cold on over the years, mostly cold. That happens with movies sometimes. What we like as kids can look embarrassing now. And what we once dismissed can start to look profound. But with The Breakfast Club I’ve always vacillated between cheerless indifference and a distant admiration.
As a Gen X-er, I’m not even sure this is allowed. It’s like everyone held an election to determine what my generation’s defining teen movie would be and I didn’t get a vote. I’ve never hated The Breakfast Club and I got why others like it. It just never got to me the way it apparently got to everyone else my age (and, at this point, every succeeding generation that’s embraced it). And I’ve never bought the opinions that have seemingly hardened into accepted fact: that this was a movie about shattering stereotypes instead of perpetuating them, that it’s the best example of Hughes’ uncanny empathy for teens, that it captured how ‘80s kids really felt and talked.
Honestly, I still don’t buy them. This time around, I found myself repeatedly distracted by Judd Nelson’s performance as John Bender, the wrong-side-of-the-tracks rebel. Nelson was 24 while shooting the film (and was still claiming to be 24 upon its release nearly a year later in a Today show interview included on the disc), and he looks appreciably older than his co-stars. (Only Ringwald and Hall were teens while making the film, but Emilio Estevez and Ally Sheedy could pass.) He gives a big, bellowing performance in the film’s most overwritten part, one filled with profane soliloquies and florid insults. (Did Hughes really write the way teens talk or did it just come to seem that way when phrases like “slip her the hot beef injection” and, years before Bart Simpson, “eat my shorts” started echoing through middle schools after the film’s release?) Bender dominates much of the film, and there’s a lot of visible effort in Nelson’s work and Hughes’ dialogue. He’s trying way too hard at playing someone who doesn’t try at all.
It’s also a film filled with mixed messages. Allison, the weirdo played by Ally Sheedy, gets a makeover and wins the heart of Andrew (Estevez), a jock who’d previously never given her a second look. (She might be more of an individual in black, the film seems to suggest, but isn’t she pretty in pink?) Bender pairs off with rich girl Claire (Ringwald) after haranguing her with insults and abuse for much of the movie. Brian, the suicidal brain played by Hall, doesn’t seem that much better off than when the film began. His reward for Saturday detention: getting to do everyone else’s homework by writing the “Who You Think You Are” essay for the whole group. (Thanks, newfound chums.) “We found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal,” the essay goes. But did they? Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me” swells on the soundtrack to drive the point home, and it feels right. But ultimately The Breakfast Club does a much better job of saying this than showing it.
The Breakfast Club may or may not be Hughes’ best film. (I’m partial to Pretty in Pink, which he scripted and produced but handed off to Howard Deutch to direct.) But it’s as good example as any of Hughes’ ability to create films’ whose underlying resonance helps squelch their flaws.
Pretty in Pink may have a bummer of an ending — Andie and Duckie obviously belong together — but it’s still got those scenes between Ringwald and Harry Dean Stanton and it’s still “Bring on the Dancing Horses” and the rest of that soundtrack. In fact, from Sixteen Candles through She’s Having a Baby (with which Hughes failed to sub in early adulthood for teen life) they’ve all got soundtracks that helped introduce angsty ‘80s teens to the last ripples of British New Wave that became synonymous with growing up in the Reagan era. An avid music fan throughout his life, Hughes understood how easily the right song could get through to the heart of the matter.
But there’s a grimness to the film that even the most stirring Simple Minds song can’t quite negate. Hughes never made a sequel to The Breakfast Club. In 1999, he told the Hartford Courant, “I’m too fond of those characters. […] I thought about it. I could do it in prose. I know what will happen to them. I know them. But to do it with real actors — with Molly and Judd and Ally — they’d never come back together again. There’s no excuse that could ever put them in the same room ever again. There isn’t anything in their lives after high school relevant to that day.’’
Think about that last line. Did Hughes’ mean it to sound so sad, to imply that nothing changed after those kids’ day together? That they learned nothing and continued down the paths they were already on, presumably turning into some version of the parents they hated?
My preferred follow-up to The Breakfast Club didn’t come from Hughes but from one of his stars. Among the features included on the Blu-ray — alongside 50 minutes of fascinating VHS-quality deleted scenes — is Ringwald’s 2014 appearance on This American Life in which Ringwald shows her 10-year-old daughter, Matilda, The Breakfast Club for the first time and recorded the discussion that followed. It’s also the first time Ringwald has watched the film as a parent. (Ditto for me, so maybe I have a vested interest hoping Hughes was wrong about parenthood turning everyone into monsters.) “Did you see it differently?,” host Ira Glass asks. “Absolutely,” she replies. “I really kind of felt for the parents.”
It’s an odd response in some ways given, as Ringwald acknowledges, that “All parents suck” is baked into the premise of the film. “Then I thought,” she continues, “‘Well, actually, that can be kind of good. Because then she can see that she doesn’t have parents like that!’” But it doesn’t quite go as planned. In the discussion that follows, Matilda gets emotional, breaking down in tears when her mother asks if she sees herself in any of the characters, replying that she’s sometimes been made to feel like Brian, and the pressure he feels to succeed in school. Did the movie get it right? Are we doomed to repeat the same pattern from one generation to a next? Then Ringwald tells her daughter, “That’s really good for me to know. I had no idea. When did I make you feel like that?” Then she and Matilda talk it through and it seems like maybe there’s hope after all — and maybe more to The Breakfast Club than I used to suspect.
As with songs, Hughes also understood the value of the right line at the right moment. “When you grow up, your heart dies,” Allison says late in the film. No kid talks like that, but Sheedy makes the line vibrate anyway, and sells her character’s conviction that we all bear this curse, that adulthood will bring nothing but disappointment and that parents inevitably end up messing up their kids. When we hear Sheedy say that line about dying hearts, who are we really hearing? Allison, sure, but also a grown-up more complicated than any of the cartoonishly villainous adults in The Breakfast Club, a writer/director who wants desperately to tell a bunch of teens how it sometimes feels to be an adult. How experience and the accumulation of responsibilities can cool the burning passions of youth. How being a teenager is the worst when it’s not also the best. How all those emotions on the surface that make you hurt also make every song on the radio sound like it was written and sung especially for you. How those feelings can get buried deeper than you’d like them to be as the years pile up. How these aren’t the best years of your life, but they’re the years that will stick with you the longest and never fully fade into the past. I didn’t hear that then, but I hear it now, and deep on the other side of the teen years, I like The Breakfast Club more than I ever have before because of it.