250TH REVIEW: The Breakfast Club (1985)

The Breakfast Club (USA, 1985)
Directed by John Hughes
Starring Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall 

In my now-antiquarian review of Gregory's Girl, I spoke about how coming-of-age films often become indelibly tied up with the people whose careers they helped to launch. Even before thousands of lazy "where are they now?" articles appeared on the internet, it was common for film stars to be born from a single role and then live forever in its shadow - Phil Daniels from Quadrophenia being a good example. 
Of course, this phenomenon is not something that's unique to film in general, or this sub-genre in particular. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never truly shook off the mantle of Sherlock Holmes, just as A. A. Milne failed to divorce himself entirely from Winnie the Pooh. But the effect is more pronounced here, given the strong generational identity of coming-of-age films and the speed at which such a reputation can be accrued. It is within this heightened context that we must approach The Breakfast Club, a good-natured and heart-warming film whose shortcomings have long been masked by nostalgia and the passage of time.
It's very difficult to tackle The Breakfast Club critically without in some way offending a vast swathe of one's potential audience (or at least a section which is of a certain age). In the 31 years since its release, it has become the poster child for the Brat Pack group of actors, the gold standard of 1980s teen comedy-dramas, the yardstick against which all of John Hughes' work is measured, and a by-word for insight into the teenage condition. That's a tough reputation for any film to live up to, and to expect one film to succeed at all that is to set ourselves up for a fall.
The truth is that the teenage condition - in fact, the human condition as a whole - is such a diverse subject that no one film can never successfully epitomise a generation. As much as I have praised Heathers - and will continue to do so - I would be both a liar and a fool to claim that its pitch-black humour and playful violence were wholly characteristic of the 1980s. 'Definitive' is a very dangerous word, and it's important that a reviewer's personal opinions do not become either conflated with or inflated into any wider pronouncement about a whole culture - especially when such a judgement is made on the basis of the reputation of a work, rather than the work itself.
In the case of The Breakfast Club, there are two ways in which Hughes' film can be enjoyed or appreciated. One is as a total throwback, in which we pretend that Simple Minds are still in the charts, enjoy the characters on their own terms and emerge from the darkness back to our own, complicated lives once the school day is over. The other is to delve deeper for something approaching universal insight within what the characters say and do, trying to downplay or ignore the period details. As someone who has long been opposed to escapism for its own sake, it should come as little surprise that I find the latter approach to be more effective and worthwhile.
If we choose to see this film in purely escapist terms, then it's really no better or worse than anything else Hughes put out during this period. Its storytelling style may be more understated than Ferris Bueller's Day Off, but it shares the same carefree optimism that Heathers would later tear to shreds. The fashions, particularly those exhibited by Judd Nelson, look ridiculous, even by some of the more bizarre trends being exhibited today. The music is apt in places, but Hughes' choices are still relatively safe; the cinematography is tender and understated, but nothing massively remarkable; and the script has its fair share of gems but also sections which are too slow or somewhat clunky.
If we choose the second, more analytical approach, the most curious thing which emerges about The Breakfast Club is that its character conventions are very much out of their own time. David Ansen, former film critic for Newsweek, summed it up best in his review from 1985: "Hughes obviously remembers his own adolescence, for the stereotypes he employs are virtually unchanged since the 1960s, give or take a marijuana cigarette. Parents are still the root of all evil, surly rebels hide sensitive hearts, and no problem is so great that an honest heart-to-heart won't fix it."
Hughes has always taken a warm, rose-tinted view of adolescence, but it is particularly marked in this film; Ansen even carped that he "deserved more plaudits as a social worker than a filmmaker". It may be a feature of not having grown up with the film, but by tarring all the grown-up characters with the same brush it actually serves to make the children's concerns and reactions to their problems less nuanced. Rather than just turn the principal into your standard narky bad guy, Hughes could have used his character as a mirror, showing not just what the children could grow into, but that he secretly harbours the same concerns as them (or at least once did).
Having built slowly and meandered along pleasantly for most of its running time, The Breakfast Club truly begins to justify itself at the very point when it should become most hokey - when the characters all sit down and talk about their problems. There are still little irritations along the way - Nelson's punk would never be that eloquent in real life - but the combined likeability of the performers lend this an air of credibility. Whatever generation the concerns emanate from, the fears and hopes they have are pretty universal, and the film has the confidence to be open-ended where a less confident writer-director would have opted for pat sentimentality.
The biggest emotional pull of The Breakfast Club - the element which still resonates most strongly with young audiences - is the fear of being pigeonholed or abandoned. The characters at the start of the film appear to have been painted with pretty broad brushstrokes, but as the film winds on they feel like three-dimensional people who aren't completely comfortable in their own skins. Hughes beautifully captures the way in which teenagers use fashion trends, clothing, hairstyles or even speech patterns as defence mechanisms, means to protect themselves in a society where showing your true feelings or celebrating who you really are is either discouraged or dismissed as unhelpful by those in authority.
In a way, there are six main characters in The Breakfast Club; our five protagonists, and the oppressive silence of the school itself. Hughes is clever to leave long gaps between sections of dialogue before the final act, making the school feel more like a prison; not only are the children being punished, but their surroundings act as an institutional standard against which they are being silently and implicitly judged. There is a comparison here with Jean-Paul Sartre's seminal play No Exit, which postulated that "hell is other people"; the characters' struggle is not just against each other, but against the absurd and arbitrary standards of the adult world which they are destined to enter whether they like it or not.

The Breakfast Club is a charming teen comedy-drama which retains some but not all of its punch after 31 years. Hughes' warm direction and nostalgic writing will not be to everyone's tastes, particularly to those who like their comedy on the spikier side, and both the pacing and characterisation are a little lax in the early section. Ultimately it's still watchable fare - something that certainly can't be said of every coming-of-age film - which succeeds and earns what reputation is deserves on the strength of the performers and the substance of its final act. Our memory may play tricks about how good it really is, but we certainly shouldn't forget about it any time soon. 


For more information on Gregory's Girl, Quadrophenia, Heathers, check out the archives of The Movie Hour from my time on Lionheart Radio. Click here to see the breakdown of episodes or visit www.lionheartradio.com.

NEXT REVIEW: Juno (2007)