There’s a part of me that’s wowed by how contemporary The Breakfast Club still feels, more than 30 years after it first hit the big screen in 1985. It’s not only the best movie that John Hughes, arguably the most authentic chronicler of teenage angst in the history of cinema, but it’s by far and away his most honest. The script, whose barely-contained contempt for adult figures who condescend to the kids depicted in the film, gets the feelings and attitudes just right and, although I missed its initial theatrical run by nearly 15 years, there’s no doubt that watching it again made more than a few memories of those awkward, pimple-covered years flood back into my mind.
The characters almost blended together for me, in the sense that they represented a different manifestation of the same basic human instinct. Whether it’s the prom queen, the brain, the jock, the weirdo or the criminal, all five of the main characters retreat inside of these comfortable facades, each unwilling to shed those shells of armor and be vulnerable not just with other people, but with themselves as well. If it doesn’t fit a particular image, then it doesn’t belong as part of their own personal brand, one that with social media now exists outside of the confines of a high school’s hallways. What the screenplay does so brilliantly here is that, in situations and with believable dialogue, helps strip away those personas, piece by piece, until you’re left with five warm bodies who are basically the same person: scared, alone and, above all else, craving a real connection and love from someone in their lives.
There are several instances where certain lines could’ve bordered on cheap or hackneyed, with really broad setups giving way to breathtakingly cutting responses, which in turn give the viewers a moment of real emotional honesty. For example, when Claire kisses Bender on the neck in the library and he turns to her with a face of utter disbelief on his face, we’re right there with him. “Why’d you do that?” Bender asks; “‘Cause I knew you wouldn’t,” she responds, which is a really simple yet really effective way to verbalize what Judd Nelson and Molly Ringwald did so well in communicating to the audience via body language. Despite his testosterone-fueled arrogance that is almost shoved down the audience’s throat for the better part of the film’s running time, it turns out he doesn’t know how to react when a pretty girl actually shows affection for him. Her angle is even more interesting: is she really that into the bad boy facade of Bender, or is she just finding a way of expressing her budding womanhood that she knows will draw negative attention from her parents, who see her more as a pawn in their own game of psychological warfare than a daughter with thoughts and feelings and ambitions?
It really is a complex relationship to dissect, perhaps even more so upon a fresh viewing of the film. There’s a sense that, for both Bender and Claire, the physical attraction that they share for one another isn’t the only thing that’s at play here. In the first third of the picture, she uses terms like “nauseating” to describe him, yet is totally and utterly drawn to him as well, perhaps more for what he stands for than what he actually could mean to her. A way to get back at her mother and father; a way to shed the prissy “good girl” image once and for all; a way to, in her own way, experience something she considers dangerous, if for no other reason than it’s incredibly exciting for a girl who doesn’t seem to have much to get excited about in life. All of these through lines, all of this incredibly dense character development, that is communicated by a few simple lines – that is the genius of Hughes as a writer.
Another illuminating moment comes during the infamous “makeover” portion of the film, when Claire decides to make Allison more presentable and, in a certain way, more conformist to traditional beauty standards of the period. The character of Allison predates any real goth-era popularity in terms of high school fashion statements, never mind the thick eyeliner and unabashed all-black trappings that were a common sight next to lockers at my former high school, therefore it’s not necessarily surprising when she opts to shed her look for something entirely different. The following is the exchange that the two young women have before the recluse’s big reveal to the others in the library:
Claire: You know, you look a lot better without all that black shit under your eyes.
Allison Reynolds: Hey, I like all that black shit… Why are you being so nice to me?
Claire: Because you’re letting me.
Once again, it’s an unflinchingly honest moment that I think I appreciate more every time I see the movie. There are some who claim that this is the point where Allison “sells out,” but I disagree entirely. When Claire is dismissive of her eyeliner technique, the first thing out of her mouth in response is that, no, I like it that way. The follow-up question, which is one Allison probably never thought she’d have the opportunity to ask, is a query that cuts to the heart of the teenage condition, one that is distrustful of those who show kindness without an accompanying ulterior motive. The answer, which points to Allison’s willingness to let her guard down and accept love and affection from another stranger, works almost as a life hack for any teen who might be watching. I mean, isn’t that yearning to belong, to feel integrated with everyone else, one of the universal truths of being a teenager? Therefore, I don’t see the makeover as a betrayal of Allison’s character; instead, I see it as a triumph of growth and maturation, leading to an absolutely beautiful moment and contributes to the poignancy of the film’s finale.
In general, the movie is an absolute roller coaster of emotion. From the absurdist hilarity of the weed smoking and dancing scenes to the horror of Allison’s apparent rape confession to the abject horror of Paul Gleason’s Principal Vernon taunting a terrified Bender inside a claustrophobic storage room, there’s never a dull moment, nor is there a note that really rings false here. Those of us who graduated a long time ago may only remember our high school years in a sort of hazy, angst-riddled highlight reel, but we all remember exactly what it felt like, even if it takes a little bit of prodding to get there. Hughes speaks to our inner teenager and, for at least a moment, rekindles that kind of shared emotional experience that is easily buried by the burdens of adulthood. In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions, The Breakfast Club is still the most honest high school movie ever committed to celluloid.