Every year, major movie studios spend millions of dollars to make blockbuster movies that feature explosions, gunfights, scantily clad women, exotic locations, hundreds of special effects and cheesy one-liners. It’s fun if it is well done, but it’s not always particularly memorable. However, some writers and directors can tell a story that will define a generation by using one or two locations, half a dozen characters and dialogue that people actually use in real life. In 1985 that movie was “The Breakfast Club” by John Hughes, a director whose work is a source of inspiration for many young filmmakers today.
I was born in the mid-80s, so I only discovered his work retroactively. The only movies of Hughes I saw around the time they came out were “Home Alone” and its sequel, but those were movies he produced, not directed. It might explain why they are not as influential. Seeing “The Breakfast Club” on TV, a few years after I was done with high school, it made think of the people I had met throughout the three high schools I attended. None of them were in America, but they certainly had some characters similar to the ones in Hughes’ movie.
The movie’s setup is simplicity itself: five kids in a Chicago high school have detention and are all confined in the school’s library on a Saturday for eight hours. Their judgemental principal (Paul Gleason) keeps an eye on them, like a prison warden making sure the convicts don’t get any ideas of escaping. They are not to talk to each other, leave the room or even sleep. What they must do is write a 1000-word essay explaining who they think they are. It would make for a boring movie if the five were to simply obey the man and quietly write for the whole movie, but luckily they are rule-breakers. They are in detention for a reason after all.
Over the course of the day the kids get to know each other by having tentative conversations the minute the principal is away. It turns out each of the five represent the archetypes of the high school student, or at least the archetypes there were back then. Andrew (Emilio Estevez) is the all-popular athlete everybody knows. Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) is the smart one who keeps to himself and focuses on his studies. John (Judd Nelson) is the troublemaker who is one bad deed away from being expelled by the principal. Claire (Molly Ringwald) is the princess, the pretty girl who will most likely become prom queen. Allison (Ally Sheedy) is the basket case, the lonely girl waiting to explode.
In any other situation most of these characters would never even say hello to each other walking down the hallway, but as the hours go by they bond over their common problems. The marijuana John brought with him helps a lot with the bonding. They learn that like many kids they are afraid they might repeat whatever mistakes their parents made. Then there is the fact they all share the misfortune of being in high school, which most of the time is no picnic, no matter what your place is on the food chain.
The one character I wish had been more developed is the principal. When he chats with the wise old janitor (John Kapelos), the janitor tries to remind him he used to be in high school as well. It would have been interesting to know who the principal thought he was back then. What events made him think he could judge five individuals he confined to one room on a Saturday?
But Hughes didn’t write “The Breakfast Club” for principals or parents. This was to give a voice to high school teenagers. He must have known what he was talking about, since the movie was produced with a one million dollar budget and made over fifty-one. Kevin Smith would perform a similar feat in 1994 with “Clerks,” which replaced the high school setting for a New Jersey convenience store filled with twenty-year-olds discussing pop culture. Proof that you don’t always need a ton of money and explosions to make a movie people will love for years.