Breakfast Club, The (United States, 1985)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When it comes to movies, there are two things that the early-to-mid-1980s are best known for: slasher films and teen comedies. While the former category was hard-pressed to give birth to a vaguely watchable entry, quality was widely variable in the latter, spanning the spectrum from the dregs of Porky's to the top-notch entertainment of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. One of the most consistent writer/directors to contribute to the '80s teen fad was John Hughes (the man who would later scale the heights of box-office prosperity with Home Alone). In one way or another, Hughes was responsible for the likes of Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and The Breakfast Club. While all of those films were a cut above the sex and booze-drenched antics of most teen comedies, The Breakfast Club was arguably the most insightful and emotionally-true of them.

The Breakfast Club is very different from almost every other entry into what was (at the time) a burgeoning genre. Instead of relying on the staples of bare flesh, crass humor, and brainless plots, this movie focuses on five dissimilar characters, is almost entirely dialogue-driven, and doesn't offer even a glimpse of a breast or buttock. It's a story about communication gaps, teen isolation, and the angst that everyone (regardless of how self-assured they seem) experiences during the years that function as a transition from the freedom of adolescence to the responsibilities of adulthood.

Even though the premise sounds a little dry, The Breakfast Club is eminently watchable and consistently entertaining, even when it falters. Perhaps aware that his primary audience would be the 14-to-18 year-old crowd, Hughes added several surreal and silly sequences to interrupt the predominantly serious tone that suffuses the proceedings. These don't really work, but the shift in tone isn't sufficiently glaring to disturb the movie's overall flow.

The Breakfast Club is a small group of high school students, who, during the course of a nine-hour Saturday detention, are transformed from complete strangers to confidantes. For each of them, it is an unforgettable day, and, while the friendships they form between 7 am and 4 pm may disintegrate once they get back into the real world, feelings are explored and emotions unearthed that give them insights into their own lives and the forces that drive the others. These are the kinds of realizations which, if more high school students understood them, might make grades nine through twelve a little less traumatic.

The characters trapped in detention are all very different individuals. Hughes sets them up as traditional stereotypes, then delights in slowly peeling back the layers, showing how each suffers from surprisingly similar problems. There's the jock, wrestling star Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez); the most popular girl in school, Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald); the all-brains, no- brawn geek, Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall); the rebel without a cause, John Bender (Judd Nelson); and the outcast, Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy). It turns out that none of them communicates well with their parents, all are under tremendous pressure from their peers, and each is beset by angst about the future. Pretty obvious observations, right? Yet few films before or after have dealt with these issues as intelligently as The Breakfast Club.

Another traditional Hughes theme can be seen running throughout the entire film: the basic intolerance and stupidity of adults. This is evident in several ways, from the obvious (a nasty teacher, played by Paul Gleason, who revels in his power) to the subtle (the children dreading the possibility that they might grow up to become like their parents). The over-25 crowd rarely fares well in Hughes movies, and this is no exception, but there is a scene in The Breakfast Club which attempts (with limited success) to partially humanize The Authority Figure.

Hughes has assembled a unique and singularly effective cast. Emilio Estevez, although a little too old to play a high school teenager (he was 22 at the time of filming), does a good job presenting the human side of the athlete on a pedestal. Judd Nelson, also a little on the old side (age 24), is believable as the James Dean-type who is looking for some kind of acceptance and uses his pugnaciousness as a defense mechanism. Molly Ringwald, the star of three Hughes films (the other two being Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink), gives the strongest performance by showing the ugly, shallow side of being Ms. Popularity. Ally Sheedy is suitably weird as a compulsive liar and thief who takes a long time to open up. Anthony Michael Hall looks the part of the geek, but, of the five lead actors, his is the least impressive portrayal; Brian has trouble escaping from the stereotypical sinkhole in which he begins the movie.

Few will argue that The Breakfast Club is a great film, but it has a candor that is unexpected and refreshing in a sea of too-often generic teen-themed films. The material is a little talky (albeit not in a way that will cause anyone to confuse it with something by Eric Rohmer), but it's hard not to be drawn into the world of these characters. The depiction of high school is evocative because it's so accurate (an actual suburban Illinois high school was used as the filming location). Unlike many teen films, which seem to transpire in some kid's dirty imagination, this picture, despite its occasional flights of fancy, is grounded in reality. In The Breakfast Club, Hughes has created a surprisingly enduring motion picture that is still effective 13 years after its theatrical debut.

Breakfast Club, The (United States, 1985)

Director: John Hughes
Cast: Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, Paul Gleason, John Kapelos
Screenplay: John Hughes
Cinematography: Thomas Del Ruth
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1