April 5, 2016

The Breakfast Club (1985)

Five high school students (Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, and Anthony Michael Hall) assemble early one Saturday morning for detention in the school library. They do not know each other particularly well, and all stem from different social groups. Over the course of the day they talk, fight, make jokes, and eventually come to a better understanding of one another - and their own lives.

Or something along those lines. The Breakfast Club is, in many respects, the simplest form of drama: it locks five characters in a room and forces them to talk to one another. It is, in fact, so simple a structure that motion pictures rarely bother with it at all. It is more the domain of live threatre; and by the by The Breakfast Club would make one hell of a play.

The Breakfast Club is regularly held up as one of the best teen movies in American film history, and it is with good reason: this John Hughes film presented a much more realistic and unvarnished depiction of adolescence than the idealised comedies that have long typified the teen genre. It is still relatively heightened - there isn't a single unattractive actor in the lead cast - but it has a sense of authenticity to it. The characters feel like real people. Their problems sound like exactly the challenges most teenagers face. The film is more than 30 years old now and to a large degree simply refuses to date.

The film even references - unintentionally of course - its own timeless quality. In a nice little conversation between teacher Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason) and school janitor Carl Reed (Richard Kapelos) the former bemoans how every year teenagers get less respectful and more out of control. It's Reed who points out that it's actually the opposite: teenagers are always the same kinds of people. It's the adults who grow old and change. That holds true of the film: we may be 31 years ahead from it and counting, but teenager still struggle with identity, community, love, sex, awkwardness, guilt, resentment and a whole pile of other things. I am not sure that is ever going to change, and correspondingly I am not sure The Breakfast Club will ever fail to find relevance with an audience.

The film's key achievement is how Hughes takes five superficial stereotypes - the nerd, the jock, the princess, the rebel and the weirdo - and transforms them over the course of the film into three-dimensional, complex individuals. The film has some stunning writing, and the characters benefit from five outstanding performances. There is a richness to the characters, particularly Judd Nelson as Bender - a resentful, pent-up uneducated bully whose anti-social behaviour masks what is probably the hardest life of all five. It is a difficult role to play, since so much of what Bender says and does makes him unlikeable to the audience, yet Nelson manages to play a lot of hurt and soul at the same time.

Emilio Estevez is great as Andrew, a talented member of the school wrestling team under immense pressure from his father to succeed. He gets one monologue in particular during the film, where he describes bullying another student not because he wanted to but because he hoped it would make his aggressive, bullying father respect him more. It is a difficult task to make an audience feel sorry for the bully, but The Breakfast Club really does manage it - particularly since it acknowledges Andrew has broken a relationship that cannot be mended or even apologised for.

Molly Ringwald plays Claire, a rich and popular girl whose biggest problem in life is that her parents - fighting to the point of divorce - simply buy her off with trinkets to avoid having to actually engage with her. It is a valuable addition to the film, since it really shows off individual context. Claire's problems may seem trivial in comparison to someone like Bender, but they are serious problems for her. It is a very well-realised presentation of very real teenage problems.

Hughes struggles a little with the other two students. Allison (Ally Sheedy) is a goth-like recluse who compulsively steals things and lies, who does not seem to have any friends, and whose insular attitudes stem from parents who simply ignore her completely. By the end of the film it is suggested to an extent that a makeover from Claire to make her look brighter and more conventional will be the solution to all of her problems. She finishes the film undeveloped and awkwardly unbelievable. Hughes is on even shakier territory with Brian (Anthony Michael Hall), a stereotypical nerd and over-achieving student. The character is developed and written perfectly well until a last-minute plot twist reveals he almost committed suicide. The effect is like dropping a bowling ball into a bed of flowers: it is an overwhelmingly dramatic event to suddenly shoe-horn into the narrative, and Hughes fails to leave time to actually work through it and treat it with the gravity it deserves. It is an odd and striking failure in an otherwise superb film.

Even with these momentary flaws, The Breakfast Club is a remarkably strong film. It is well written, well directed and wonderfully performed. Its backdrop - a cavernous school library assembled by the film crew inside a disused school gymnasium - looks great. Even its promotional poster, showcasing a photograph by the legendary Annie Liebowitz, is memorable and superb. It is an incisive and effective exploration of teen angst from the undisputed master of the genre.

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