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The Breakfast Club (1985)

by on 2011/09/18

Will Be 

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It was either Grade Ten or Eleven, in computer class, when one of us — very possibly me — began to whistle the “Colonel Bogey March” from Bridge on the River Kwai. Soon the entire lot had joined in, much to the consternation of a teacher who probably didn’t want to be there herself.

Such was the influence of The Breakfast Club within its own time, and on an age group which — officially — should not have been able to see it.

Despite the formation of over two decades’ patina, it makes little sense to devote a month to movies about school and not examine what is widely considered the pinnacle of John Hughes’ brief career.

The teaser trailers and posters sold us on a talky teenage melodrama, interposed somewhere between My Dinner with Andre and Before Sunrise. At 7:06 AM on Saturday, March 24th, 1984, in fictional Shermer, Illinois, a brain, a beauty, a jock, a rebel, and a recluse are gathered for an all-day detention.

Over nine hours, they will “change their lives forever” through posturing, conflict, rebellion, and revelation. United against a corrupt, dictatorial principal (Paul Gleason), and surprised by the wisdom of a wily custodian (John Kapelos), they seem to overcome their vast differences. Will they remember their learnings on the following Monday? The matter is left to the audience.

Whether or not you find the premise accessible, there are some great bittersweet touches throughout. Ally Sheedy’s so-called “basket case” character is introduced in a moment which finds her own parents rebuffing her. 1969’s “Man of the Year” Carl Reed is later revealed to be the janitor himself. Both Sheedy and her “criminal” fellow, played by Judd Nelson, deliver standout performances, the former introverted, the latter extroverted, both palpably desperate for acceptance.

Nonetheless, I also found more to trouble me than I’d recalled from (many) earlier viewings. A quote from David Bowie’s “Changes” opens the picture, succinctly establishing a tone of disparagement, divisiveness, self-awareness, self-actualization and, of course, an argument from a fashionable authority. However, a visual effect quickly “shatters” the quotation, prompting the question: is its intent thus subverted, or is spectacle commensurate with substance?

While the story’s themes might be universal, their expression is as First World as quaintly colonial. A group of five straight, white, middle class (suburban), teens become mired in the false politics of the cliques with which they identify. Not to diminish the seriousness of the “rebel’s” suggested abuse but, really, what more is at stake for the five? Additional Saturdays in detention? Ultimately, only one of them (Weird Science’s Anthony Michael Hall) openly suggests their interactions have changed his outlook.

I can accept adolescence engenders the kind of myopia allowing these “issues” to become all-consuming; what I can’t accept are the missteps and moments of sheer goofiness threatening to subvert the discussion. My own teenage years having spanned the Eighties rather neatly, I assure you I’ve never heard anyone — in any school group — use the expressions “neo-maxi-zoom-dweebie”, “maximum density”, or “wastoid”. Maybe it’s a Chicago dialect Hughes was privy to?

The dance sequences are far more embarrassing, skin-crawlingly so. I doubt kids today will cut them a lot of slack. Though I could rationalize the first is the result of getting stoned, since when has smoking up granted the power to shatter glass doors by shouting at them? And the less said about the other one, the better.

Seriouser and seriouser, why link (almost) everyone up? Nothing foreshadows what we see in the end, unless lust and Hollywood money are suitable rationales. The specific pairings don’t make much sense either. Still, they’re less disturbing than the possibility Sheedy’s character needs rehabilitation. The suggestion that anything was innately wrong with her to begin with is misguided, even offensive, particularly to this site’s demographics.

Despite its troublesome disappointments, I can’t endorse The Breakfast Club strongly enough. By escalating playground dynamics to the level of a “grown up” drama, Hughes has given kids a touchstone for identification, a platform for discussion, and a respect for their rights, feelings, and perspectives. It’s a work that transcends and unites social groupings and — for anyone who remembers being a teen — generational divides.

Clearly I’m one of the adults referenced in the film. Perhaps my heart has inevitably died . . . but at least I know it, and I haven’t given up on my youth quite yet.

Besides, are adult politics really so far removed from that petty playground?

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Rated R

97 minutes

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