*** out of 5
3 out of 5 stars.
The Breakfast Club has long been seen as the definitive ‘Brat Pack’ film and one of the best works of its writer and director John Hughes. As time has gone on it has increasingly been seen as both an essential teen movie and an essential ’80s movie.
I have a love-hate relationship with this film. Reasons for the ‘love’ I have for it include that it came out in 1985, the year I was born and it’s always the film I kind of date myself with. Other reasons I love it are that John Bender was the inspiration for Bender the robot in Futurama, and it has ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ by Simple Minds as its main theme song. There’s also the fact that a lot of people can pick their favourite of the 5 teenagers and say which one they were most like in high school. But there’s one particular character that I always related to and the closest I’ve felt any work of fiction show what I was like as a teenager.
That is Allison. Wearing a big heavy coat, scribbling and doodling away on a pad, feeling isolated from the other kids. There are also little things she did which when I first saw this film I was saying “I did that!”, like when she was tying a thread around her finger for instance. I never had sandwiches as interesting as her Cap’n Crunch and Pixie Stix one though. I’m not alone in identifying with Allison either, indeed looking at forum posts on this film with a “Which one were you?” title, I’m surprised at just how many people said they were Allison in high school. Now if you’ve seen this film, you can probably guess where the some of the ‘hate’ I have for this film comes in, but we’ll get to that later.
The film hasn’t much plot. Indeed the entire plot is five teenagers in detention. It is more to do with the personalities of the characters. They all fit classic high school stereotypes. We have Claire Standish “the princess” played by Molly Ringwald, John Bender, “the criminal” played by Judd Nelson, Brian Johnson “the brain” played by Anthony Michael Hall, Andy Clark “the athlete” played by Emilio Estevez, and Allison Reynolds “the basket case” played by Ally Sheedy. The main focus of the film is the clashing, contrasting personalities and them all learning about each other. What works so well is that they come across as closer to real people than one dimensional stereotypes. That is kind of the whole point of the film, showing that there are real people behind the stereotypes we automatically file them into. But it is shown well as the costume department haven’t gone over-the-top with any of the characters, the geeky lad doesn’t have glasses for example, and the acting is good from all of them.
The only casting choice I think is a bit strange is Emilio Estevez. He looks a bit slight to be a wrestler, and he’s shortest of the boys. Reading up on the film I found out he was only cast as Andy because they had difficulty finding someone to play him. I’m not surprised at that, Andy is the least interesting character to be honest. I am surprised though that Emilio Estevez was originally going to play Bender! Similarly Molly Ringwald was originally cast to play Allison. I do wonder how she would have played her. With Claire she gives her a lot of charm and likeability which balances out the character’s shallow and spoilt traits. Claire also makes the point that after the detention they won’t be friends afterwards as they all fit in different cliques. This is a good point, as while for this very film and in TV shows you get groups of people with very different personalities, simply because it makes it more interesting and broadens the potential audience appeal, in real life birds of a feather flock together.
Bender is many people’s favourite character, with his air punch at the end being one of the most iconic things about the film. He is definitely the funniest, the film is peppered with his snarky comments and one-liners. Having said that, Brian has his comical moments, mainly due to how perfectly Anthony Michael Hall played ‘adorkable’.
I can see the flaws in this film despite the fact I enjoy it. The film is very silly in parts, and it just gets sillier watching it as I get older. I don’t think it’s because it has aged, rather because I’ve aged. Reviews of this film from people who were adults when it came out tend to dismiss it as pretentious and self-pitying. To its credit, the film addresses the fact that adults and teenagers tend to view the world differently. Allison has a line saying “When you grow up, your heart dies”. I have noticed that I’ve mellowed and my view of many things has changed as time has gone on. The Principal and the janitor have a conversation, the upshot of it is that they weren’t much different when they were their age, it’s that they’ve changed because they are now older.
There has been criticism that the characters don’t have any real problems. I’m not sure that’s entirely fair, as parental pressure to succeed and parents fighting all the time are a big deal to kids who are going through such things, and I’d say it’s very harsh to dismiss Bender’s violent, abusive parents and Allison’s lack of friends and possible mental health issues as “not a real problem”. But I can see where those people are coming from to an extent. Andy is basically feeling sorry for himself for bullying another kid, Brian was going to commit suicide because he got an F, and Claire is very privileged in many ways compared to the rest of them. While it’s more complicated than that for all of them, I can see how it may come across as a bit wangsty for some viewers.
Now here comes what I really dislike about this film. After they spend the film trying to debunk stereotypes, the geek boy has to write the essay while all the others hook up, the popular girl with the bad boy, and the weird girl gets a make-over to look just like the popular girl so she can date the jock. It isn’t so much what happens, it’s that it’s clearly framed as something we’re all meant to be happy about. In some ways I think it illustrates just how conservative a decade the ’80s was.
Brian being left alone I think annoys people because it’s difficult to shake off the idea he’s left out just because he’s “the geek”, which obviously will get peoples backs up. Interestingly, there is a rumour that Molly Ringwald would have liked Brian and Claire to pair up, which would have been different. In real life Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall dated for a while after the film.
While I wouldn’t say I like it, I don’t so much mind Brian being left unattached, mainly because the character himself didn’t seem that cut up about it. Apparently Brian’s personality was based on John Hughes himself, so I doubt he disliked the character and had contempt for him. From what I’ve seen it doesn’t seem to have effected Brian’s popularity as a character with fans of the film. He gets to write the essay which is shown as a big speech at the beginning and end of the film, and it leaves him open to fans giving their own interpretations. He has been called “the heart of the film” by quite a few. There is a popular theory that Brian was gay. I don’t think that was the intention of the filmmakers at all, but I quite like it as an alternative character interpretation.
When I first saw this film, I was shocked about Claire and Bender hooking up. Since then I’ve become more familiar with the “girls love bad boys” cliche. But even then, Claire and Bender seemed to hate each other. Bender was basically bullying her throughout the film, and there is an implication she wants to go out with him partly because it will piss off her parents. This isn’t helped by finding out that Judd Nelson stayed in character throughout filming and picked on Molly Ringwald to the point where John Hughes almost fired him. It’s presented as the great romance of the film, but for me I’ve always thought that relationship could only lead to disaster.
And then there’s Allison’s makeover. It’s a variation on the old “Plain Jane was Beautiful All Along”/”Ugly Ducking becomes a Beautiful Swan” thing, but it misses the mark. Basically, most people seem to think Allison looked better before. Her new look doesn’t suit her (for her part, Ally Sheedy apparently hated the bow she had to wear) and she looks too much like a doll. What the filmmakers couldn’t have predicted is that Allison’s original look would date much, much, much better than her makeover. Her going from an outfit not dissimilar to goth/grungy/alternative/emo or whatever to something that a girl might be made to wear by her mother at a stuffy formal event is puzzling for those of us who first saw the film in the ’90s, 2000s or 2010s. The intention of the film may well have been to bring Allison out of her shell and for her to stop hiding herself away, but it comes off as her being told that she will never be happy if she looks the way she wants to look (she says during the makeover she likes the black eye make-up she wears), and instead has to conform to a very specific type of beauty, and ultimately that her own personality is worth throwing away if it means getting to be a piece of arm candy for a jock. For me personally, and for those of us who identified with Allison, it’s bad because it’s this idea that anyone who isn’t in the most popular clique is just kidding themselves if they say they don’t want to be in it, a view which Claire is called out on earlier in the film by Brian. Not everyone wants to be in the most popular crowd just because it’s the most popular one, and I think the filmmakers may not have realised about real life “Allisons” out there is that, they don’t want to look like every other girl, they don’t want to be the girlfriend of the jock, they want to be appreciated for who they are and they want to find like-minded people. The other problem I have with the makeover is that Allison’s social difficulties aren’t going to dissolve just because she’s wearing different clothes now, and ultimately her eccentricities are probably not going to sit well with Andy’s friends.
If there’s another thing that makes me not feel so bad for Brian, it’s that I can’t see either of the two couples ending well, but then very few high school romances last long.
I’ll always have a lot of affection for this film, and it will probably always irritate me a little too, but it’s a testament to how good it is that it has endured for nearing 30 years, and even if it had been forgotten I’d say it’s an fun film despite its flaws.
One thing I discovered recently is Molly Ringwalds’s nice cover of ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’, which is what I’ll end this review on.