The Breakfast Club (1985)

I was a bit apprehensive about watching another John Hughes “classic” after the disappointment of Sixteen Candles (1984). Thankfully, The Breakfast Club is a much better and less problematic film. Its very uncomplicated plot helps it from careening too far off track: A group of five teenagers from different social circles have been ordered into school on a Saturday morning to face detention as punishment for various bad behaviours. They talk, they bond, the end.

The simplicity of the plot makes the character work stand out all the more. The protagonists start off as teen movie stereotypes – the jock, the geek, the rebel, the social queen, the weirdo -, but infuse these clichés with nuance and ambiguity over the course of the story. As they get to know each other, they turn into more three-dimensional characters who shouldn’t be defined by a single word. But they’re all in detention for a good reason, and their more negative actions both before and during the film aren’t waved aside as harmless.

All five lead actors give convincing and at times surprisingly subtle performances, particularly Judd Nelson as Bender, an irresponsible bully and drug dealer with hidden depths. Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall are carried over from Sixteen Candles and benefit from the superior material; they both show that their repertoire is bigger than “pouty and pining” and “fidgety and faux self-confident”, respectively.

Editing, cinematography and song choices are at least as strong as in the previous film, and The Breakfast Club mostly loses the silly sound and transition effects.

Aside from maybe some of the hairstyles and clothing, the film feels quite timeless. High school cliques still exist and the problems that teenagers must face – in particular, parental and societal expectations of them – haven’t really changed all that much. With a more racially diverse cast and some different song choices, the film could easily have been made today and wouldn’t lose any of its appeal.

It’s not a perfect film. While the teenagers end the film more well-rounded, the teacher who brings them all together remains a fairly thin villain, a despot who relishes bullying the pupils, particularly Bender, cares little for legalities, and whose authority is undercut by various undignified mishaps and ridiculous calculations. The only other adult character of note, a janitor, is polite enough towards the children, but admits to routinely violating their privacy and isn’t above blackmail, and thus isn’t a role model either. The parents, of course, never get a chance to prove their kids wrong. Teenage films from a teenage perspective don’t need to be at least somewhat balanced, but grown-up dramas probably should at least try.

Also, the main characters’ self-centred whining, albeit true-to-life, can get annoying and repetitive. There is some variety (like the haughty and sometimes downright mean behaviour of the more popular cliques towards the “weirder” ones), but overall the film focuses too much on blaming their terrible parents and not enough on taking responsibility for their own questionable behaviours.

Compared to its peers in the genre, however, I wouldn’t hesitate at all to call The Breakfast Club a masterpiece.

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