The Breakfast Club ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I revisit this film like at least once a year just to refresh myself and even, as weird as this may sound considering I’m not very old, remember what high school was like and even relate it to myself now in college. To investigate why people divide themselves by cliques and the judgments we pass on others based on their social standing. The ambiguity of the ending is brilliant as well, allowing us to draw our own conclusions about what happens to these students when they return on Monday. John Hughes himself admitted in a quote from AMC’s Notes blog that he couldn’t quite capture what would happen on Monday, because it’d be too complex for a single film. It’s part of the reason why I’m glad that despite being a hit, this film did not get a sequel. The story’s continuation is best left to the imagination. 

I like to believe that perhaps the group met in secret, or that they exchanged knowing glances in the hall, or even that some of them maintained some form of friendship. Or perhaps, as Claire suggests in the film, the group just distance themselves from each other due to peer pressure and societal norms (the marketing claims the group only met for this one day, but the marketing team doesn’t necessarily represent a writer’s intention). 

However, I think the film isn’t just nihilistic and brutal, I think there’s a ray of hope that the group grows from their experiences together, whether this means they remain friends or that they merely re-evaluated their relationships with others is up to personal preference. 

Sure, this film has some dated 80s cheese and tropes (the obligatory makeover doesn’t make Ally Sheedy any prettier than she already was, just more conventional, or how the opening David Bowie quote ends in a ridiculously dated glass-smashing dissolve effect as we see the exterior of the high school) but I think it’s a lot smarter than most of its peers in the genre: there’s no racist caricatures, no irritating sidekicks or peripheral characters, and no big climax at the school dance or conventional romantic plot (there’s merely the growing attraction between characters from spending the day together). There is some homophobia, but it’s included because it’s accurate to how teens in the 80s talked (most of it involves characters calling each other “f—ot”) and less directed at stereotyping or mocking gay characters (there are none, which is unfortunate as the film could’ve benefitted from examining the horrors of homophobia in the 80s, but I’m also aware it wouldn’t have sold as well in 1985 if that were the case, another sad fact). It’s very stripped down, merely putting the essential “leaders” of a given clique (stereotypes) in a scenario of forced interaction, allowing their conversations to reveal the complex motivations underneath their actions and hardened exteriors. It’s actually the most non-traditional “high school” film I’ve ever seen.

I love the subtler things that one can pick up from multiple viewings: Bender acts out and gets multiple Saturday detentions not just to maintain his Rebel persona, but potentially to provide an opportunity to escape his absuive household; perhaps he seems so traumatized by Vernon’s threats to him in the janitorial closet because Bender is shocked that an authority figure at a school (even one he lacks any respect for and pushes to his limit) would remind him of his father. These are the things The Breakfast Club can hide beneath its 80s high school movie sheen: a real, very raw movie about the brutality and confusion of being a teenager, or even just being human (it feels like this movie is just as fresh and real to me as a young adult as it was when I was in high school). 

Not to mention, the theme song is just an iconic banger. Even the sound mixing is cool, as when the music builds to a resounding clang as Bender screams “Fuck You!” to Vice Principal Vernon as he leaves after giving Bender two months worth of Saturday detentions. 

Vernon is displayed as a buffoon and generally unlikable, but even he is given some complexity as he seeks to understand these kids and stubbornly refuses to admit that maybe he’s wrong. The exhausted sigh he gives after he puts on a display of sadistic authoritarianism (by giving Bender the detentions and the antagonizing him about it) suggests that he is not so much a genuinely cruel man but one who is tired and fed up, and one who puts on a show of dominance because he (wrongly) believes it to be an effective way to earn the respect and fear of the students, or because he’s simply at his wit’s end after a long career of humiliations and disrespect for very little payoff. 

A current-day critique is that the film is very focused on white suburban teen struggles, and while I think it’s true that the characters, plagued by the type of neuroses you only have time to develop in a life of relative privilege (with the exception of the economically disadvantaged and emotionally damaged Bender) can limit the film’s relatability, it’s become clear to me it still has the power to reach a wider audience. John Singleton credits this film for inspiring Boyz in the Hood, which one wouldn’t immediately realize seeing that film. But Singleton, writing for a local paper as a teen film critic, felt that despite the characters being middle-class white kids, their pains, tribulations, and general sense of unbelonging spoke to him regardless. It’s rare a film can overcome its limitations so powerfully, but I believe for that reason The Breakfast Club is timeless and a true gem.

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