Smoke Up, Johnny: The Breakfast Club, Still Gloriously Poignant 25 Years Later

[29 March 2010]

By M.T. Richards

’80s nostalgia grew tired long ago, the result of too many Now That’s What I Call Music compilations and VH1 one-hit-wonder specials. We get it: the Gipper’s presidency was something, a period defined by reform, economic prosperity, sax solos, and Chia Pets. Mellencamp and Springsteen rallied the regular folk. Hall & Oates mastered slick, jazzy pop. Madonna sprinkled the charts with musings on Jesus and Mary and abortion and virginity. Ducky and Spicoli made hilarious light of the rampant brainlessness found in suburban high school hallways. Larry Bird proved that, even if white men can’t jump per se, they could still collect titles and MVP trophies with staggering regularity. And Reagan sent Gorbachev running for the hills: take your communism and shove it up your splotchy ass!

But does that justify the relentless retrospective media coverage we’ve been subjected to? The people who grew up during that era seem to think so—just watch High School Reunion, where the cast members harp inexorably on the glory of yesteryear, fondly remembering the youthful experiences they had a quarter-century ago. These same people call into soft-rock radio stations requesting Mike & the Mechanics or REO Speedwagon, the soundtrack to their adolescent euphoria. They’ve done a lot to ensure that their generation, and the decade that reared them, will forever be the cornerstone of popular culture, and they’ve succeeded: the 1980s have had a larger impact on current trends than any decade before or after.

Not that our enthrallment with the ’80s is ungrounded. Just like pop music will likely never see another innovator as astounding as peak-era Michael Jackson or Prince, cinema will never yield another virtuoso like John Hughes, someone who chronicled the plight of glum, angsty teenagers with an inherent combination of tenderness and understated humor. He was a beacon of artistry and empathy. And his best-known work—an unprecedented string of blockbusters (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink) made between 1984 and 1986—forever changed the way coming-of-age tales were told. A movie like Superbad is more vulgar than the classic Hughes comedy, but the disillusionment and nerdy, undersexed eagerness that underscore every crass joke is grade-A Hughes. Michael Cera’s brand of droll innocence isn’t far removed from Anthony Michael Hall’s; Jonah Hill is a smartass cynic much in the same way that Judd Nelson was.

Hughes was by no means the world’s most versatile filmmaker. He routinely worked with the same mob of Brat Pack whiz kids. He rarely strayed from Chicago, his beloved hometown. And he harped unwaveringly on one theme: teen anguish. Yet Hughes colored within those lines with astounding originality, inundating his works with left-field oddities (Otis Redding covers? Valet parkers stealing Ferraris?) and tons of feeling—the scene when Ferris’s best friend, the uptight, stoic Cameron, unleashes years of oppressed fury and demolishes his father’s prized sports car remains life affirming. No picture demonstrates that poignancy more than The Breakfast Club, his 1985 juggernaut and the defining youth-sucks movie of all time. These kids, equal parts callous and sensitive, put the insipid horndogs at Ridgemont High to shame.

“They only met once, but it changed their lives forever”—that was Breakfast Club’s memorable tagline. Lost in the endless shuffle of students at a high school in Chicago’s North Shore suburbs, five depressive children were forced to endure a Saturday detention together in the school library, bonded by nothing but their sheer contempt for everything and everyone. They personified the stereotypes: you had the hyper-masculine wrestler (Andy, played by Emilio Estevez), the lusty homecoming queen (Claire, played by Molly Ringwald, a relic of the ’80s in the same way that Donny Osmond was a relic of the ’70s), the prank-committing stoner (John, played by Judd Nelson), the wholesome honor student (Brian, played Anthony Michael Mall), and the deranged recluse (Alison, played by Ally Sheedy). Andy and Claire chant nonchalantly about popular-kid stuff, but otherwise the group makes no conversation at first. They instead sit in tense silence, punching the clock begrudgingly.

Then, in comes Vice Principal Vernon, a miserable middle-ager with a stick up his ass. “You’re going to write an essay,” Vernon barks. “No less than 1,000 words.” The essay is supposed to be an exercise in self-examination, but Vernon knows that the kids will blow it off—just as well, since he takes perverse delight in condemning them anyway. But the only student who protests verbally is John, tartly sarcastic as always.

“Does Barry Manilow know that you raid his wardrobe?” he asks, eyeing Vernon’s questionable leisure suit.

After that the floodgates open...

After that, the floodgates open: they get comfortable and engage in a biting battle of wits. Knives are pulled. Homophobic slurs are exchanged. Probing questions (“Are you a virgin?”) are asked. Andy wrestles John to the ground. John, the product of abusive parents, shows off his gut-wrenching bruises (“This is what you get in my house when you spill paint in the garage”) and launches into a rare fit of emotion, angered with himself for displaying so much vulnerability. No one is supposed to see this far beneath his rugged veneer.

John isn’t the only one plagued by difficulties. Andy, a stocky kid who swaggers through the hall in a letterman jacket, despises every iota of his athletics-obsessed life. He trains tirelessly to get a scholarship to a D1 school, yet prays that his knee will give. Claire’s affluent parents are more concerned with their sleek luxury cars and Caribbean getaways than they are with her. Brian, a brainiac who’s both pretentious and meekly awkward, is contemplating suicide after a failing grade. His mother—an unadorned, frizzy-haired woman with a blue-collar accent—yearns for him to succeed (and perhaps save her from a life of rote mediocrity), but she yearns at the expense of her son’s psychological well-being.

Most resonant is Alison, who dons off-putting dark clothes and describes herself as a “compulsive liar.” Her hobbies include stealing locks and fabricating tales about statutory rape because why not. She’s also priceless: no teen-movie outcast in history has ever come close to matching the seamless mixture of hilarity and sorrow that defines Alison’s character. Ricky Fitts in American Beauty? Please. Ally Sheedy, miles removed from the preppy stunner she played in St. Elmo’s Fire, more than proved her versatility with this role.

She’s also the only student who isn’t consumed by malice. Alison has achieved next to nothing in her life, she’s crippled by social awkwardness, and she’s been wholly neglected by a world that measures worthiness by academic or athletic prowess, but she remains lovingly openhearted. It’s breathtaking, really. The others could learn from her.

Make no mistake: they put on a shit-taking clinic. John relentlessly mocks Andy’s super-earnest athlete gusto (“Oh, wouldn’t that be a real bite? Missing a whole wrestling meet?”). Andy and Claire scorn John for underachieving (“You don’t even count,” Andy sneers in an icy monotone), for attending too many “heavy metal vomit parties” instead of channeling his energy into something “productive.” John taunts Brian for resembling a 1950s sitcom character, lily-white demeanor and nutritious lunches and all. Brian chastises Alison’s pariah-like behavior. They’re hostile people, kids who deploy smugness and confrontation as defense mechanisms and tools to survive in a society that mistreats adolescents just for being adolescents. They feel oppressed, and they convey those feelings of discontent by trying to one-up each other with juvenile bullshit—the same juvenile bullshit, in fact, that informs negative teenage stereotypes.

That is The Breakfast Club’s biggest strength: its sheer objectivity. Hughes recognizes how loathsome high schoolers can be, and he sympathizes with domineering adults that a lesser filmmaker would treat like dictator caricatures. As punchline-worthy as Principal Vernon is—he’s hopelessly, humorlessly self-serious, his only friend is the wiseass janitor (John Kapelos), and he wades through confidential files in his free time—he’s also a moving and deeply tragic figure. He got an academic job for dubious reasons, and now he’s stuck there, unmarried, supremely isolated, and forced to endure the endless snickers and an unshakably bad reputation. No one acknowledges Vernon as any sort of authority on anything, and he realizes it.

Tragic figure or not, though, Vernon is still a jerk, and when the kids deride him, you cheer them on, thrilled by and perhaps envious of their rebellion. They smuggle weed, climb through vents, and try to conceal their mischief with cutesy, sarcastic obliviousness (“Can you describe the ruckus, sir?”). But such blitheness is really just an interlude from more pressing matters. Even when they break out in song and dance and Brian side-splittingly dons ZZ Top sunglasses, the underlying tension is still palpable; it brims to the surface during their famous circle conversation, a scene that’s tensely emotional and full of revelations. Andy divulges the shame hidden beneath layers of macho narcissism. Brian explodes in a stunning fit of rage, the same rage that he routinely oppresses with do-gooder national honors society-isms. And it becomes clear that they haven’t quite matured as one would hope, something that is perhaps best exemplified by Claire’s blunt coldness.

“So, so on Monday…what happens?” Brian asks at one point.

“Are we still friends, you mean?” Claire responds. “Do you want the truth? I don’t think so.” 12th grade is a baleful world, she explains, one that forbids different social circles from intertwining. That kind of grim realism—and Claire’s refusal to compromise the status quo—lends harrowing emotional force to an already complex story. They might dislike their lives and themselves, but they have reputations to protect. Mingling with other cliques could tarnish what they’ve worked for.

Admittedly, The Breakfast Club is regarded as a coming-of-age classic for suspect reasons. We love the music (The Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me”, Wang Chung’s “Fire in the Twilight”), which couldn’t have been made during any era other than the mid-’80s, but still bustles with life a quarter-century later. We love the slightly contrived ending, during which John and Claire miraculously bury the hatchet and begin romancing. We love the way John, during the end credits, struts across the football field, fist in the air, while those shimmering keyboards from “Don’t You Forget About Me” play triumphantly. We love the cheesy slang (neo-maxi-zoom-dweebie?). We love Brian’s letter to Vernon, so unabashedly swollen with pride. And although it was criticized in some circles for condoning anti-feminism, many of us love Allison’s beautiful-swan makeover.

That’s all well and good, but what really endures is the sheer heart that defines the film, the way that it supplies stark, grave candor and quirky spunk in equal measure—and smashes every stereotype in the book while doing so.

Just to be clear, today doesn’t mark the 25th anniversary of The Breakfast Club; that was February 15. But forget it. The wit, warmth, and potent pathos that characterize every scene will resonate everlasting. And being tardy is always a reason to spend some time in detention.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/121770-smoke-up-johnny-the-breakfast-club-still-gloriously-poignant-25-year/