Madden, K.A. (1997). A discussion of the movie, The Breakfast Club. S. Hamilton, MA: Center for Youth Studies.
…And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds are immune to your consultations. They’re quite aware of what they’re going through…
“The Breakfast Club”, written and directed by John Hughes, opens with the above statement. The film follows five students in a Saturday study detention program. The detained each committed different infractions of the rules at Shermer (Illinois) High School. Thus, a background of intergenerational conflict is established.
Each student is initially portrayed as a stereotypical representative of his or her caste in high school society: Brian Johnson, “a brain” (Anthony Michael Hall); Andrew Clark, “an athlete” (Emilio Estevez); Claire Standish, “a princess” (Molly Ringwald); Allison Reynolds, “a basket case” (Ally Sheedy); and John Bender, “a criminal” (Judd Nelson). Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason) plays the no-nonsense, supervising teacher. Unlike most of his other films, Hughes paints all the adults in the movie negatively-except the savvy underdog, Carl the janitor (John Kapelos). “Are we going to be like our parents?” Answer: “When you grow up, your heart dies.”
Imprisoned by an establishment that does not understand or care, these natural adversaries, “brain-washed” by adult prejudices, bond with each other by the end of the day. Two couples form across social barriers (the “criminal” and the “princess”; the “basket case” and the “athlete”). The “brain,” ordinarily a social misfit, is elected the group leader and representative to write the punitatively-assigned 1,000-word essay on “who you think you are.” He becomes the group’s collective voice in denouncing the establishment.
Hughes’ career flourishes on exploring a “slice-of-life” through its logical extreme (“National Lampoon’s Vacation”, “Mr. Mom”, and “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”) and particularly on investigating the young psyche (“Sixteen Candles”, “Pretty in Pink”, “Home Alone”, and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”). So too with “The Breakfast Club”. It unfairly ascribes all teen problems to adults, but it does justifiably note their most obvious abuses: divorce and infidelity, parental abuse (both physical and emotional toward children and each other), abandonment (legal and virtual or “latch-key”), moral hypocrisy (“Sure, I got crazy when I was a kid; the difference is, you got caught!”), the decline in teacher idealism, and parental pressure to succeed. The movie also provides articulate insight into the adolescent world and realistically depicts teen behavior: John verbally fondles Claire in a malicious face-off; Andy savagely explains to John why John’s life does not matter; Claire admits that she probably will not acknowledge the others as friends in the following week, and so forth. It recognizes that people are made of the same stuff: “We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it than others.”
The film remains immensely popular, tightly synthesizing the realism and romanticism of the teenage mind.
- “The Breakfast Club” could be an effective play.
- Assigning an essay as punishment is pedagogically reprehensible. Creative writing should never be associated with punishment.
- The film has no racial diversity; all the actors are white.
- The film favorably portrays marijuana use. The five students dance and act “free” after John shares some of his stash with them.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What in the film is realistic? What is romantic?
- What about the janitor is attractive to the kids?
- Are there aspects of the film which are no longer current? What in the movie is timeless?
Kelly A. Madden
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