Director: John Hughes
Cast: Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy, Paul Gleason
Plot: A Jock (Estevez), a Prom Queen (Ringwald), a Nerd (Hall), the Weirdo (Sheedy) and the local Criminal (Nelson) all get 8 hours of detention on Saturday, where they learn valuable life lessons about themselves.
John Hughes’ second entry as a directorial debut, seems like the kind of film a newbie director would set up for their first film. A minimal cast, a single setting and a reliance on dialogue over expensive action pieces. It feels like the likes of debut director entries like Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs or Lumet’s 12 Angry Men. Tarantino might have felt comfortable starting out in a single room with a focus on character, but when he got the budget for the second film, he wasted no time in spreading his wings with Pulp Fiction. Having a second film in one location might feel like a backwards step for a director.
However, in Hughes’ hands, the Breakfast Club becomes that rare breed of film that descends into a timeless classic. John Hughes is most commonly known for his quintessential teenage high school movies (ignoring his brilliant stints with John Candy later in his career), but the Breakfast Club is perhaps the one that settled deeper into pop culture’s greatest hits list. While Hughes is still guilty of tackling his narrative using stereotypical roles (I always struggle to recall the character names, so end up thinking of each character as the Jock or Nerd), there is something about the Breakfast Club which transcends each of these stock archetypes. The enclosed space means that the audience have no choice but to start absorbing the script and as a writer, Hughes must scratch deeper than the usual fun trademarks of the high school movie. It starts off happily reaffirming each stereotype. The larger first half of the movie is the five protagonists, worlds away from each other in terms of personality, begin to rile each other up. This is the kind of fun that the Breakfast Club will be best remembered for, the school delinquent pushing everyone’s buttons out of simple boredom. But none of the cliques have the perfect lives that they make out they have. The Nerd might be getting perfect grades, but his life is a hollow shell of studying and failing to live up to his parent’s expectations. The Prom Queen thrives from popularity, but her stint in the Breakfast Club makes her realise that there is very little depth to her. And the Jock, usually the high school movie’s shining golden boy, is deeply unsatisfied with his life. While the majority of the Breakfast Club is watching these characters bond and insult each other’s way of life, eventually the script breaks free from the cliché. Or does it? The interesting thing about the script is that it does not try to overcome the stereotypes, but simply deepens them. The Prom Queen still leaves Mrs. Popular, the Jock still clings to his stereotype, the Nerd isn’t about to start beating up the weak kid for his lunch money… But they come to an understanding about each other. The film has its fun (including a wacky dance scene that livens up the second half and cements it as a cheesy 80s treat), but settles into the five of the characters, sitting around a circle and talking. Just talking. But as we are given emotional monologues from Estevez and shocking arguments in the final third, this is where the film is its most exciting, characters breaking, growing and wowing. Hughes doesn’t feel restrained by a single set film, but liberated by it.
He owes a lot of thanks to his cast. Without them, this might be little more than a trashy hidden gem or the film that could’ve been. He reunites Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall from his debut film and they easily feel the most comfortable. Ringwald was the star of the era and she feels at ease in a stereotype that never feels overtly stereotypical. Anthony Michael Hall also pushes the nerd role in a subtle way. He still cracks awkward jokes, still nestles over an essay and is still the one who is the most reluctant to break the rules. But there is a subtlety to his performance that the rest of the cast don’t fully embrace. As everyone delivers rip-roaring enthusiastic performances, Anthony Michael Hall impresses with a slight stutter or the right pause at the right time. He is quietly magnificent. The newcomers to Hughes’ filmography are strong in their own ways. Ally Sheedy plays the outcast, or the Basket Case as Hughes refers to her, silent for the predominant part of the movie. It means that she has to look bizarre from the out-set, which she manages with the little things: finishing a snowy drawing by brushing her dandruff onto the page, eating an alternative lunch… Sheedy only really gets to push her performance when she gets to the final talky scene, which she manages with ease. You could say the same for Estevez. The actor is definitely strong and watching him in Breakfast Club makes you wonder why the actor didn’t become as famous as he did. However, he only truly feels alive here, when Hughes gives him a lot to do. He amazes when he gets a bizarre dance move to do, or when he is handed a surprisingly touching monologue about his home life, but throughout the film, he is a quieter presence that you might guess. It is Judd Nelson who steals the show. While the other actors shine when the camera turns to them, Nelson is never not at the forefront of the story. He fills the screen loudly, fuelling the start of the movie, giving the characters a good reason not to just sit and see out their detention. He pushes boundaries, his creeping comments about Ringwald’s virginity excuse enough to hide a burning hate for the character, but it is clear that these remarks are mainly about getting under her skin, rather than any genuine desire to rape her. Nelson is also the most interesting figure here, his character opening up early and promising interesting developments in the future. As he continues to make the wrong decisions, you are begging for Nelson to show a softer side. We might argue the character never does, a tragic example of the classification of school stereotypes sentencing a child to a future of mistakes.
Final Verdict: John Hughes’ follow-up to Sixteen Candles is one of the greatest teen movies ever made, an emotional, funny roller-coaster that has elevated to classic status.