On February 15, 1985, a landmark film was released in theaters. No one had any clue of the impact it would have. It was, after all, “just” a teen comedy. Within a short period of time, though, The Breakfast Club would become the teen comedy. It would turn writer/director John Hughes into a household name, and make stars of Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy, and Judd Nelson. It would also become the high school movie against which all future high school movies would be judged. As the film celebrates its 30th anniversary, it seems appropriate to look back at the movie that redefined a genre.
To fully appreciate the effect of The Breakfast Club, you have to understand the climate in which it was released. There were lots of teen movies in the early- to mid-’80s, but most of them were sleazy sex comedies about young men trying to get laid. Porky’s and its kind ruled the box office. Movies that took teens seriously were few and far between. Fast Times at Ridgemont High, released in 1982, addressed adolescents with seriousness of purpose, but it only grossed $27 million, as opposed to the $105 million earned by Porky’s. And Sixteen Candles — Hughes’ predecessor to The Breakfast Club — got some notice, but it couched its empathy toward teens in a lot of broad humor. (Paging Long Duk Dong!) So when this little movie opened, it swam dramatically against the tide.
The Breakfast Club has an elegance to its conceptual simplicity. Five high school students are forced to attend Saturday detention. There’s Claire (Ringwald), the popular rich girl; Andrew (Estevez), the quintessential jock; Brian (Hall), a smart kid; Allison (Sheedy), an introverted loner; and Bender (Nelson), a bully. Monitored by spiteful assistant principal Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason), the kids initially irritate each other, only to eventually start analyzing their roles in the school hierarchy. Once they do, their prejudices melt away and they discover that they all have more in common than anyone thought. The movie sends them home with the suggestion that they will try to be more accepting of each other once Monday rolls around and they’re all back among their respective cliques.
The Breakfast Club opens with Simple Minds’ iconic theme song “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” and a quote from David Bowie’s “Changes.” It says: “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 glass on which that quote is written then shatters, symbolizing the manner in which the movie will shatter the viewer’s expectations of its characters. Early scenes find each of the teens fulfilling their assigned role, with some clearly higher in the popularity chain than others. Then, gradually, Hughes begins filling in shades of gray, showing what’s beyond the surface of well-honed adolescent stereotypes. By the end, you realize that, just as the characters have misjudged one another, so have you misjudged them. You end up feeling positively toward all of them, even the ones you couldn’t stand at the beginning, because you now see beyond the labels.
In addition to being well-acted by a superb young cast, The Breakfast Club gains its power from openly challenging a social pecking order familiar to anyone who’s ever spent so much as a day in an American high school. From there, it proceeds to disassemble the whole notion, arguing — with equal amounts of humor and insight — that the casual cruelty teenagers often inflict on those outside their circle is not only damaging, but also just downright stupid. No film has ever addressed the issue of adolescent social status with such acuity or rage. The real enemies, Hughes says, are the adults who pigeonhole kids into specific boxes and make them think it’s their duty to stay there.
My personal experience with the movie is indicative of its considerable effect on young viewers. I was fifteen when The Breakfast Club was released, and I saw it on the opening Saturday. It was the first R-rated movie I ever saw without an adult. (My local mall-plex was pretty lenient.) I was a Brian — a kid who got good grades, was socially awkward, and had a near-perpetual feeling of not fitting in. The characters in the movie reminded me of my classmates. As the story stripped away my expectations of who they were, my preconceived notions of my peers were altered, too. Maybe the guy who likes to shove me into the lockers has an abusive father who torments him in a similar way. Maybe the popular girl who won’t give me the time of day isn’t stuck up so much as woefully insecure. Maybe that football player acts like an arrogant meathead all the time because he thinks it’s what’s expected of him. And maybe that weird kid isn’t weird at all, but rather fascinating and unique. The Breakfast Club articulated a lot of things I was feeling but couldn’t put into words. This was its power for many others, as well. It seemed to fundamentally understand us.
The film was a box office hit, earning $45 million, although the R rating kept it from going higher. Home video turned it into a classic, though. In the ’80s, it was impossible to find a teenager who hadn’t seen it. Suddenly, movies that portrayed teens seriously were all the rage. Hughes himself went on to write and/or direct Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Others began telling thoughtful, intelligent stories that didn’t condescend to teenagers. It’s a trend that continues to this day. You can see the influence of The Breakfast Club in movies like Easy A and The Spectacular Now, as well as in TV shows such as My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about The Breakfast Club is that, 30 years after its initial release, young people are still discovering it. Watching the movie is a rite of passage. Everything about it holds up — the performances, the themes, the insights. It remains one of the truest films ever made about the adolescent experience.
Of course, the individuals responsible for making the movie had varying degrees of success in their careers afterward. All the actors continue to work in the entertainment business, although each of them has struggled to find grown-up roles as meaningful as the ones they played here. And John Hughes made a few more smart, funny pictures before striking box office gold in 1990 with his screenplay for the blockbuster Home Alone. His writing sadly changed after that film’s mammoth success; he stopped writing relatable scripts and began cranking out soulless slapstick comedies.
Regardless of what happened later, Hughes and his actors were all in top form in 1985. They came together to make a movie that spoke to a generation and continues to speak to new viewers on a regular basis. The Breakfast Club knows what it’s like to be young, insecure, and desperate to be understood. It will remain a classic, for all the Saturdays that people are watching movies.