More than a quintessential Eighties teen film

On 24 March 1984, these five teenagers sat down for detention at Shermer High School. By the end of the day, they had found friendship and become heroes for a generation. Twenty years on, why is 'The Breakfast Club' still in a class of its own?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When I was 14, I wanted, more than anything else on earth, to be an American. More accurately, I wanted to be an American student. I wanted to go to high school. I wanted the tuxedo to wear to the prom. I wanted the photograph in the yearbook. I wanted to date the cheerleaders. Trouble was, I went to Lea Manor High School in Luton.

Everything I thought I knew about young America came from Hollywood films. In particular, it came from the work of one man and one film; John Hughes, director of arguably the greatest teen movie of its era, The Breakfast Club.

Anyone who grew up in the Eighties will need little convincing of just how important The Breakfast Club was for our generation. What The Big Chill and Wall Street were for adults, The Breakfast Club was for us: a perfect portrait of teenage angst. It was the film that drove me to fetishise metal lockers and fantasise about Molly Ringwald. For years, it was my favourite film. Even now, it hovers in my top 10.

To borrow Tom Wolfe's description of Phil Spector, John Hughes was the "tycoon of teen". Throughout the Eighties, Hughes directed a clutch of films that both defined and celebrated what it meant to be young in that decade. Like Spector, he operated in a genre that was generally considered superficial and banal, and, like Spector, he transcended the genre to create a body of work that was exuberant, exhilarating and revealing. With films such as Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, John Hughes made stars of what came to be known as the "Brat Pack" - Matthew Broderick, Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estevez and the flame-haired teen temptress Molly Ringwald.

Hughes's films often featured these same actors, and all were set in the fictional town of Shermer, Illinois. Where Thomas Hardy had Wessex, Hughes had Shermer, and the town's geography connects all of his work: Del Griffin from Planes, Trains and Automobiles lives two doors from Samantha Baker (of Sixteen Candles fame), who knows Ferris Bueller, who went to Shermer High School - as do the characters in The Breakfast Club. The word "auteur" may usually be reserved for film-makers such as Bergman and Godard, but John Hughes was the auteur of adolescence, and The Breakfast Club was his finest moment.

Set 20 years ago, on 24 March 1984, the film opens as five students arrive at Shermer High School for a Saturday detention. Each are there for a separate misdemeanor. In the simplest terms and using the most convenient definitions, the five are a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Brought together and told to write an essay describing "who they think they are", the detention forces each of them to confront their prejudices. Ordinarily, the students would have no cause to spend time in each other's company. By the end of the day, the students have exposed each other's fears and realised that they have more in common than they could have imagined.

Hughes wrote the script in two days and, unlike other films of the genre, The Breakfast Club is almost entirely dialogue-driven. And, while the characters might have seemed obvious stereotypes, the film rarely feels contrived because the script crackles with genuine teenage sentiment and wit. Part of the appeal in watching the film as a teenager was trying to identify which stereotype you were: there was Molly Ringwald as Claire, the conceited prom princess; Anthony Michael Hall as Brian, the maths-loving nerd and secret virgin; Emilio Estevez was Andrew, the "bun-taping" sports star; Ally Sheedy was Allison, the strange misfit who uses dandruff as an aid in her artwork; and, of course, Judd Nelson, the unfortunately named Bender - a denim-jacketed, fingerless-gloved rebel and delinquent.

Naturally, everyone wanted to be Bender. He might have been a pot-smoking drop out, but he had all the best lines. To Vernon the jaded and sadistic teacher: "Does Barry Manilow know that you raid his wardrobe?" To Andrew the wrestling champion: "I want to be just like you. I figure all I need is a lobotomy and some tights." And to Claire the pristine princess: "Are you medically frigid or is it psychological?"

It didn't matter that the characters attended Shermer High School; all schools have their cliques and subcultures. What made The Breakfast Club resonate with its audience was that it treated the obsessions and anxieties of its teenage characters as if they were genuinely important.

Outside of the school gates, a cold war was raging, Africa was starving and crack cocaine and Aids had begun to wreak havoc in US cities. Hughes didn't take any notice of any of that. The director understood that most teenagers are preoccupied with their self-image and how others see them. The Breakfast Club reminds us that status anxiety, far from being a modern and middle-class phenomenon, can be found in the classrooms and hallways of every school.

In particular, Hughes was frank about sex, and the social anxieties faced by those who had not lost their virginity. Sex, for most of the detainees, is a subject to be avoided at all costs. When the characters talk about sex they lie, blush and fidget before admitting their inexperience.

But it is not just sex that provokes their anxiety. Every character in The Breakfast Club shares a dysfunctional relationship with their parents. Bender's father beats him. Andrew and Brian's parents are too pushy, and Claire's parents use her to get back at each other. When Andrew asks Allison what her parents do to her, she whispers, "They ignore me". Like many teenagers, I was convinced my parents did not have the first clue about me. Watching The Breakfast Club was like sitting in on a group therapy class and finding out that, to quote from the film, "we are all bizarre, some of us are just better at hiding it".

During the course of the day, the characters learn to stop hiding their insecurities. Having bonded over their shared antipathy of their parents, danced to Wang Chung and shared a joint (The Breakfast Club was surprisingly non-judgmental way it depicted dope-smoking), the group realise that they are not as different as they had imagined. The film ends with a seemingly neat conclusion: weirdo Allison gets a makeover and lands the jock, while prom queen Claire gets off with rebel Bender. Brian the brain is left on the shelf; not even Hughes's imagination could envisage him getting lucky. Nevertheless, we know, and the film hints as much, that come Monday nothing will have changed. The ending is therefore more ambiguous than it appears.

And, for all its Simple Minds soundtrack and poorly-choreographed dance sequences, the film remains an inspiration for some of today's writers and movie-makers. Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy) has cited Hughes as an influence, and based his film Dogma on a quest to find the town of Shermer, Illinois. Hughes's film has also been referenced in Dawson's Creek in an episode that was an explicit homage to the movie.

"When you grow old," declares Allison to the rest of the group, "your heart dies." She was only half right. In the case of the Brat Pack, when they got old it was their careers that died. Having become so closely identified with a certain genre and time, most have struggled to repeat the triumphs of their glory days. Judd Nelson is now 44. And after three years starring opposite Brooke Shields in Suddenly Susan, he has appeared in a handful of mediocre made-for-television movies. Emilio Estevez is 41. After some promising roles in Young Guns and Repo Man, he starred in the appalling Mighty Duck films. Once the brightest star of the Brat Pack, Estevez was once engaged to fellow-packer Demi Moore, before marrying and then divorcing the singer Paula Abdul. His most recent outing was a film with his brother Charlie Sheen, in which he played a porn king. Anthony Michael Hall is 35 and has starred in the American TV series The Dead Zone.

After surviving both bulimia and a relationship with Bon Jovi guitarist Ritchie Sambora, Ally Sheedy, who is now 41, has continued working. But, despite a brief career renaissance in the indie hit High Art, her most recent film roles have been largely forgettable. Molly Ringwald, the poster girl of the Brat Pack, is now 36; since the Eighties she has continued making films as well as starring in the Nineties US television series Townies.

Hughes spent the rest of the 1980s making adult films, such as Planes, Trains and Automobiles, before launching the career of Macauley Culkin, firstly in Uncle Buck and then the hugely successful Home Alone franchise. Since then he has been responsible - or perhaps culpable - for Dennis the Menace, 101 Dalmatians and, most recently, Maid in Manhattan. Say it ain't so, John.

The past 20 years may have been unkind ones for the Brat Pack, but having seen it again recently I was struck by how potent The Breakfast Club remains even after all this time. It is impossible for a child of the Eighties not to watch it and just wallow in nostalgia. But while it might be the quintessential Eighties teen film, it is not only that. At its heart it is about that stage in our lives when we are convinced that no one understands us, neither parents nor teachers; when the only thing that matters is being popular. In other words, it is about being young. And for as long as the generations misunderstand each other, for as long as The Catcher in the Rye is read and The Times They are a-Changin' is played, The Breakfast Club will remain: an enduring, timeless classic.