When I think about the formative influences on how I watch and think about cinema, it doesn’t take long to get to John Hughes. His teen movies – The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Some Kind of Wonderful as well as, to a lesser extent, Sixteen Candles and Weird Science, and his teen-movie coda about twenty-somethings, She’s Having a Baby – are baked into my DNA. Hughes comes before everything, for me, a near-inarticulable kind of deep-down fundamental. John Hughes’s movies are a key part of a largely unwritten pre-history of how the part of my brain that watches films was formed, and – much later – thinking and reading about them was part of the slowly-and-then-all-at-once of my figuring out that all I really wanted to do was write about movies. Before Hadley Freeman decided to devote herself to full-time transphobia, she wrote a book about 1980s movies including Hughes’s called Life Moves Pretty Fast, and it’s barely an exaggeration to say I’m not sure if I would be the person I am now without reading it. Even when I wrote about the formative role The Social Network played in my development as a film critic – literally calling it the movie that made me love movies – I exalted it in part by citing its John Hughes influence. To say they’re good films feels like a tautology – they’re such a basic part of what I understand the words “good film” to even mean.
A lot of things I loved as a teenager, I return to them with a worry in my chest about having grown out of whatever it is. That’ll it seem hollow and superficial to my adult eyes and ears. But I never worry that about Hughes’s teen movies. The opposite is true: whenever I revisit these films, they reveal new depths, new pleasures, new wits, new layers of emotional complexity.
Hughes has, I think, become reasonably well-respected – as well as being beloved of beloved filmmakers like Sofia Coppola or Greta Gerwig, his work has endured in a way you couldn’t ignore if you tried – but a part of me will always think of him as misunderstood. John Hughes gets used as a shorthand for teen movie clichés in a way that seems disconnected from the work itself. It’s been years since I read this quote from Richard Linklater about wanting Dazed and Confused to be the inverse of a John Hughes film, and I still get annoyed about it regularly:
The drama is so low-key in [Dazed and Confused]. I don’t remember teenage being that dramatic. I remember just trying to go with the flow, socialize, fit in and be cool. The stakes were really low. To get Aerosmith tickets or not? That’s a big thing. It was really rare when the star-crossed lovers from the opposite side of the tracks and the girl gets pregnant and there’s a car crash and somebody dies. That didn’t really happen much. But riding around and trying to look for something to do with the music cranked up, now that happened a lot!
But John Hughes didn’t make films about teen pregnancy and car crashes and dying. Sure, Pretty in Pink is about a rich boy and a girl from the wrong side of the tracks falling in love, but it spins that story with a grounded realism that’s quietly devastating. If you want a teen movie where the drama is low-key and the stakes are really low, John Hughes is your guy. After all, his best films are about getting detention and skipping school. The stakes are – from an adult point of view – rock bottom. Hughes’s genius, in part, is that they don’t feel that way.
The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off are Hughes’s masterpieces. But where Ferris Bueller’s Day Off has an almost unworldly kind of fun and wonder – too perfectly constructed to have been sculpted by clumsy human hands – The Breakfast Club is jagged and intense. It brings two of the stars of Hughes’s previous film, Sixteen Candles – Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall – but leaves behind its goofy humour. It’s a tense drama, and it knocks me back on my heels every time. Its much-discussed flaws, like Allison’s (Ally Sheedy) makeover, somehow do not mar its particular brand of brutal, bruised, and bloody-knuckled perfection. Something so personal it cuts to the bone is hard to keep clean of all blemish.
I’m aware that’s a really strong way to talk about a 1980s teen movie – one which Variety snottily said “would probably pass as profound among today’s teenage audience” – especially for someone who, on one hand, hasn’t the nostalgia boost of having been a teenager at the time, and on the other, hasn’t herself been a teenager in quite awhile. But The Breakfast Club just really is that good. I’ve watched it so many times, and every single time, it’s a sucker punch.
“…And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds are immune to your consultations,” goes The Breakfast Club’s epigraph, quoting ‘Changes’ by David Bowie, “They’re quite aware of what they’re going through…”
The movie takes place entirely in Saturday detention, trapping both the audience and the characters in a claustrophobic box. Five kids gather at Shermer High School’s library at 7:00 am: Brian (Anthony Michael Hall), a brain; Andrew (Emilio Estevez), an athlete; Allison (Ally Sheedy), a basket case; Claire (Molly Ringwald), a princess; and Bender (Judd Nelson), a criminal. They’re described that way in voiceover, and I’m always struck by the particular words used, mostly non-pejorative versions of playground insults: the brain instead of the nerd, the athlete instead of the jock. Even the pretty pejorative terms aren’t quite the way school bullies would put it: the basket case instead of a freak or a weirdo, say. Vice Principal Vernon (Paul Gleason) tells them they’re supposed to write one-thousand-word essays about who they think they are – and not talk, move from their seats, or sleep – then he leaves, popping back into the library every so often to give out to them.
The story of The Breakfast Club is the story of five high schoolers from disparate cliques going from antagonistic strangers to deep, personal friends, even if the question of how those friendships can survive outside this box is left unresolved. It’s a talking picture, like My Dinner With Andre or Twelve Angry Men: all the drama, all the action, is dialogue, but like My Dinner With Andre or Twelve Angry Men, it never feels stagey or theatrical. Before Hughes, Molly Ringwald said, “there weren’t a lot of movies from the kids’ point of view. And if they were, they weren’t terribly realistic, and it didn’t really sound like they were kids talking.”1 All Hughes’s teen movies have a keen ear for the way teenagers talk, but in The Breakfast Club, it’s extra important because the whole film is just kids talking. Its confessional structure has to ring true or the whole film falls apart.
Even though the film barely leaves the library and never leaves the schoolgrounds, the claustrophobia of it subsides. It starts to feel more like a sanctuary. Detention is a prison that becomes a source of freedom: from their peers, from their parents, from the world. On behalf of all five, Brian writes the assigned essay, explaining how Vernon sees them only “in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions,” the same way they say each other this morning. That in reality, each of them is a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, a criminal.
The characters are introduced as primary-colour stereotypes, and the film spends its runtime peeling those back, revealing the richness of each of the kids. “We’re all pretty bizarre,” Andrew says, “Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.” The arc of the movie is the slow reveal of each of their shades of bizarre. Claire can do her lipstick with her cleavage. Allison claims to have slept with her psychiatrist before claiming she’s actually a pathological liar. Brian does Anthony Michael Hall’s weird black guy impression when he gets high. Bender, famously, sexually harasses Claire – but there’s an interesting wrinkle in the #MeToo of it all when Claire kisses him: when he asks why, she says, “Because I knew you wouldn’t.” And Emilio Estevez plays Andrew with a sturdy stillness belied by his ultra-expressive eyes: his style is reminiscent of his father, Martin Sheen, even as both his character and performance are practically a photonegative of Sheen’s affable psychopath in the closest thing he did to a teen movie, Badlands.
Hughes said that teenagers’ emotions “are so open and raw” that they have an unmatched capacity for deep feeling,2 and The Breakfast Club is probably the closest he got to purely and wholly capturing that kind of raw, intense teenage emotion. Everything is a tightrope walk. Bender asks Claire if she’s a virgin, and you can see the internal calculus to find the perfect but impossible answer, the one that doesn’t make her a prude or a slut. A different version of the same song happens when he calls Brian a cherry – he scrambles for some way of responding that is both believable and doesn’t make him sound like a pathetic loser. He settles on, “She lives in Canada, met her at Niagara Falls. You wouldn’t know her.”
The most intense moment, the one that always gets me choked up, is when they talk about if they’ll still be friends come Monday. When they’re released from their sanctuary-prison. Claire says no, telling Andrew:
If Brian came walking up to you in the hall on Monday, what would you do? I mean picture this, you’re there with all the sports. I know exactly what you’d do, you’d say hi to him and when he left you’d cut him all up so your friends wouldn’t think you really liked him.
Allison asks what Claire would do if she came up to her. “Same exact thing,” Claire says, flat and resigned. Ringwald’s delivery makes it seem not – or not just – like catty mean girl bullshit: it sounds like she doesn’t really get to have a choice. Brian is crying but looking off to the side, like he’s hoping no-one will notice. Bender shouts that she’s a bitch, and she says that he’s a hypocrite: “Why don’t you take Allison to one of your heavy metal vomit parties? Or take Brian out to the parking lot at lunch to get high? What about Andy for that matter, what about me?”
(Allison seems like a perfect candidate for a heavy metal vomit party, but in fairness, Claire wouldn’t know. She’s never been to one.)
“Then I assume Allison and I are better people than you guys, huh?” Brian says after a silence, “Us weirdos.” He promises that he would never do that to any of them.
“Your friends wouldn’t mind because they look up to us,” Claire says. Brian laughs mirthlessly and calls her conceited, wiping away his tear tracks.
“I’m not saying that to be conceited!” Claire says, her face screwed up with tears, “I hate it! I hate having to go along with everything my friends say! […] You don’t understand. You don’t… You’re not friends with the same kind of people that Andy and I are friends with. You know, you just don’t understand the pressure that they can put on you.”
Away from that peer pressure, their self-selected social groupings can fall away. Bender and Claire can fight and scream and fall more than a little in love. Andy and Allison only get together after her pretty unfortunate makeover – at Claire’s hands, she comes to embody a softer, more traditional femininity, out with her thick black eyeliner, in with a frilly pink top and a hairband that pulls her fringe off her face – but they liked each other long before that. It is, blessedly, not the kind of suddenly-realising-she’s-beautiful moment later teen movie makeovers would do, like She’s All That. Andy already knows she’s beautiful. And Allison is still Allison, a fact reinforced when we cut to the wide shot and see she’s still a weirdo goth chick from the waist down. We never find out if it will all dissolve on contact with Shermer High School’s student body, but at least in this moment, those barriers have broken down.
It’s a story that’s easy to understand as being about the ultimately arbitrary, superficial nature of high school stratification. These five kids from different parts of teenage society realise they’re not so different, and so the haze of memory frames it as a movie about the internal social relations among teenagers, operating according to their own esoteric rules. That can provide a kind of comfort to an adult audience, to watch the film that way: like adults imagining that the “lesson” of The Catcher in the Rye is that teenage alienation “is just a phase,” you can trick yourself into believing The Breakfast Club skewers a particularly teenage dynamic while reassuring us everyone grows out of it. Teenagers know better, and so do truly great artworks about teenagers, like The Catcher in the Rye – a novel whose structure actively resists the coming-of-age format, willing always to sit with Holden Caulfield in his depression, his grief, his alienation – and like John Hughes’s teen movies. Hughes’s genius in The Breakfast Club is that he never presents the miniature society teenagers form as some autonomous, self-contained world. It is circumscribed and delimited by adult society, subject to its whims and often its control. There is no reassurance, no solace, for the adult viewer. We are called to account.
I felt that keenly on a recent rewatch. Well into my early twenties, I watched The Breakfast Club with my teenage brain. That was part of the joy of it, for me: rewatching it kept a part of me alive that a lot of adults stonewall off, let me maintain an empathy for teenagers that I like to think is palpable in my writing about pop punk, the most teenage of music genres. My own feelings would immediately become enmeshed in the characters I identified with: Brian, obviously, who has a fake ID so he can vote, with more than a dash of Allison, hiding in her big black coat without saying a word. But this time – in part because I’ve dealt with a lot of the baggage I’ve been carrying around since finishing school, in part because I’m really old now – I felt like I could stand at a distance from it. Not the kind of distance that dulls the impact. The kind of distance that clarifies the whole picture.
The Breakfast Club is a movie about adolescence, and because of how seriously it takes that on its own terms, it’s a movie about abuse and neglect, about pressure and powerlessness. Each of the kids has a relationship to their parents that’s left them covered in scar tissue, real or metaphorical. Bender is the first to break the seal, spitting rage about the cigarettes his dad has put out on his arm. They don’t even know each other yet – it’s hours before the rest will explain their trauma. Bender wears his quite literally on his sleeve. Claire thinks he’s making it up. That question mark is less for us to doubt Bender’s candour and more to establish how his candour is its own kind of defense mechanism: if you just straight out tell people your dad puts cigarettes out on you, no-one’ll believe it.
Claire, meanwhile, has parents who spoil her with material gifts, but withhold their love: she’s just a pawn in a game they’re playing against each other. Andrew’s dad was a high school athlete, too, and his desire to vicariously re-live his glory days through his son puts a pressure on Andrew that tightens around him like a coil. He’s in detention because he taped some poor nerd’s buns together, and he confesses to the group that he did it to impress his dad: to make his dad think he was cool, like he was back in the day. This most stereotypical of jocks vs nerds moments was a directly created by the adults around them. (Andrew’s impression of his dad saying we only accept winners in this family prompts Bender to suggest their dads meet up and go bowling.) Allison tells Andrew her parents ignore her, and in my memory, he sighs out “yeah,” or even “me too,” but in the film itself, his eyes say it all: both Allison and Andrew have parents who ignore them, hers by denying her any attention, and his overloading him with attention while hardly seeing who he is at all.
Brian’s parents have drilled so much pressure into him about his grades that when he fails shop, he plans to kill himself. That’s what he’s in detention for – they found a gun in his locker. “I can’t have an F, I can’t have it and I know my parents can’t have it,” he tells the rest of the group, “Even if I aced the rest of the semester, I’m still only a B. And everything’s ruined for me.”
The Breakfast Club is a movie about how the whole world is designed based on the supposition that teenagers aren’t really human beings, not in the way adults are. It was not that long ago that it was universally acknowledged that children were their property of their parents, after all. Vernon threatens to beat up Bender – to assault a child in his care – and flat-out tells him that he would get away with it because no-one would believe Bender over him. Because, as Matilda put it, “I’m smart, you’re dumb, I’m big, you’re little, I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it!” But most of it’s more subtle than that.
In his essay “Nightmare in the Mirror: Adolescence and the Death of Difference,” Scott Long accuses Hughes’s teen movies of creating a “fake oppositions between teens and adults” that would fall apart in the presence of “genuine” marginalised groups – hence why his films are generally set in insular, white, suburban worlds. There are a bunch of problems with this, obviously, but let’s leave aside the centrality of class and gender to so much of Hughes’s teen movies: how evident the relationship is in his work between who is cool or not in high school and who has rich parents, or his propensity towards female protagonists, or his very obvious use of queer coding. Long claims Hughes’s opposition between teenagers and adults is “fake,” but it’s the realest power dynamic in a teenager’s life.
It’s being expected to spend a whole Saturday sitting silently in a room. It’s your mother telling you that you better spend that time studying when she drops you off, and your intention to die inviting punishment instead of help. It’s being shuffled between two parents who compete for your love without ever thinking to offer their own, making you just another object to be bought and traded, and it’s having parents who hardly notice you exist without ever being allowed to become independent of them. It’s torturing some kid because that’s what your dad wants, and it’s being tortured because that’s what your dad wants. School, parents, it’s all set up in a way that never considers the teens’ wellbeing, at least not the way we would consider humane for an adult. Teenagers are there to be controlled, contained, cordoned off – even as they are at such a vulnerable stage in their emotional and psychological being.
The Breakfast Club reverses this assumption that underlies how we treat teenagers: the teens in the movie are vivid and alive, messes of vulnerabilities and nerves and embarrassment and humour, struggling under the weight that has been placed upon them. The adults around them are blind to all that. “When you grow up,” Allison says, “Your heart dies.” It’s hard not to think she’s right.
And part of why Hughes’s films are so powerful, for me, is that they’ve kept my heart beating all these years.
1. Gora, Susannah. You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation, 2011, p. 2.
2. Freeman, Hadley. Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned From Eighties Movies (and Why We Don’t Learn Them Anymore), 2015, p. 66.