The Breakfast Club (1985, John Hughes)

THE BREAKFAST CLUB, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Spoiler warning: These reviews reveal plot twists.

Saturday 24 March 1984. 7am. Five students arrive at their school to spend the day in detention. They have to sit quietly in the library for nine hours and write an essay…

Kids:

* Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald) – aka the princess. Reason for detention: skipped class to go shopping. Claire is spoilt, rich and aloof, and wears an expensive burgundy jacket, which goes very well with her red hair and pink blouse. She initially takes a dislike to Bender – especially after he says she has a fat girl’s name, questions her sexual experience and even puts his head up her skirt – but slowly warms to him as the story progresses. By the end, they become a couple and she gives him one of her diamond earrings. Earlier, the group force her into admitting that she’s a virgin. She then shows off her party trick: applying lip-gloss while the stick is held in her cleavage. It’s a strange moment, which has to be shot circumspectly to hide the fact Ringwald can’t really do it. During the production of Sixteen Candles, John Hughes had asked Ringwald to play Allison in this film. But after reading the script she campaigned for the role of Claire instead.

* Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall) – aka the brain. Reason for detention: a gun was found in his locker. He’s a pale, lanky nerd who’s a member of the maths, Latin and physics clubs. He’s polite and obedient and just wants to write his essay. At one point, he seems to be suffering from a touch of morning glory. When Bender assumes he’s a virgin, Brian says he slept with a Canadian girl at Niagara Falls and has experience with Claire – but then Bender embarrasses him into admitting that neither story is true. He later has to hide Bender’s drugs (down his trousers). During the group’s confessional scene, Brian reveals that he’s under so much pressure to excel academically that he’s considered killing himself. (The others laugh, though, when he says he was going to use a flare gun.) As 4pm approaches, Brian starts to write the essay. The group have decided to submit one between the five of them – the copy we heard read out at the beginning of the film.

* Andy Clark (Emilio Estevez) – aka the athlete. Reason for detention: he taped a boy’s buttocks together for a laugh. One of the school’s star wrestlers, he dresses in a varsity hoodie. A no-nonsense type, he has little time for Bender’s antics. “If I lose my temper you’re toast, man,” he warns him. When things later get physical between them, Andy easily grapples Bender to the floor. Things thaw when Andy has a go of Bender’s marijuana: he does a crazy, manic dance round the library’s upper gallery, pumping his fists, then screams so loud he breaks a glass door. He defends Claire from Bender’s bullying, and asks if she’s going to a party that night, but later makes a connection with Allison. After the latter has had a feminine makeover, Andy is knocked out and they share a kiss. Estevez actually auditioned to play Bender, but moved to the role of Andy when John Hughes was struggling to cast the part.

* John Bender (Judd Nelson) – aka the criminal. Reason for detention: set off a needless fire alarm. Bender, a denim-jacketed force of nature, is the spark that lights the fire. Without him, none of the others would have talked to each other. He’s confident, cocky and sneery – Courtney Love once said he was “full of dick and penis and scrotum and testicles” – and can cut through the bullshit. He asks impertinent but insightful questions, pushes people’s buttons and sees how they react. If this were a Becket play, we’d later find out that he’d been figment of the other characters’ imagination. (In fact, at one point Andy says to him, “You may as well not exist at this school.”) Not willing to accept the no-talking rule, Bender wastes no time in provoking the others: he bullies Brian, tries to disgust Claire, winds up Andy, and generally rebels against the rules. He breaks a door, sets fire to his own shoes, rips up books, brandishes his flick-knife… Bender does a speculative impression of Brian’s all-American family, then one of his own angry home life and shows Andy a cigar burn on his arm. He’s clearly a very damaged soul. He’s self-destructive too: when he sarcastically asks Mr Vernon, “Does Barry Manilow know that you raid his wardrobe?” he’s given an extra detention. Vernon later goads him into more backchat, resulting in possibly seven or eight more Saturday detentions (Brian keeps count, but Vernon disagrees with his tally). Halfway through the film, Bender leads a mutiny and all five kids sneak out of the library and visit Bender’s locker, from where he retrieves some marijuana. He then sacrifices himself, running off loudly so Vernon will chase him and the others can get back to the library unseen. Vernon then locks Bender is a storeroom, but Bender finds a way back to the library and hides under the table when Vernon walks in. He then lights up and shares his marijuana around. Soon everyone but Allison is getting high, and they start to talk… As well as Judd Nelson – who bullied Ringwald off-screen too, much to John Hughes’s disgust – John Cusack and Nicolas Cage were in the running for Bender. Cusack actually got the job before Hughes had a rethink.

* Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) – aka the basketcase. Reason for detention: none (she just had nothing better to do). A fuzzy cloud of hair, scarves and bags, at first she sits quietly in her duffel coat looking like a proto-grunge chick. She doesn’t speak until 24 minutes in, and then it’s only to exclaim, ”Ha!” (She gets told to shut up.) At one point, we see that she’s an excellent artist. She draws an image that looks like the bridge from Beetlejuice, then shakes dandruff all over it as snow. She claims a lot of things: that she drinks tonnes of vodka, that she’s a kleptomaniac, that she’s a nymphomaniac, that she sleeps with her shrink… But then she ’fesses up. She’s actually a compulsive liar. At the end of the film, once everyone’s made friends, Claire decides to give Allison a makeover. She lifts her hair off her face and applies some pretty make-up. Allison looks good. But it’s a truly bizarre moment, which is incredibly out-of-step with the film’s message of self-identity and confidence. “Are you a girl with problems? Well, just start looking like all the other girls and everything will be fine!”

Adults:

* We see various parents, but only briefly: Claire’s BWM-driving dad, Brian’s pushy mum, Andy’s angry dad, and later Brian’s dad (a mute cameo for John Hughes). Brian’s sister appears too.

* Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason) is the cynical, disillusioned teacher who’s drawn the short straw and has to supervise the detention. At the start of the day, he sets them an assignment: write a 1,000-word essay on who they think they are. He has no affection for the kids and seems to take delight in going up against the rebellious Bender. He doesn’t seem that fussed about supervising, though: he leaves the kids alone for huge amounts of time so he can sneak down into the basement and rifle through his colleagues’ personal files.

* Carl (John Kapelos). Before we see Carl in person, we see his face on the wall: when a student, it seems he was once the school’s Man of the Year. He’s now the school janitor, doing his rounds at the weekend. When Bender tries patronising him, Carl easily shuts him down – reminding the lad that, as janitor, he can open people’s lockers and look through their personal effects. He later finds Vernon doing the same with the other teachers’ files, so blackmails him $50 to keep quiet. Rick Moranis was originally cast in the role, but left after a disagreement with John Hughes. Kapelos had also been in Sixteen Candles.

Close-ups: Hughes reuses the Sixteen Candles trick of employing a close-up montage to introduce the school. We see shots of graffiti, litter, lockers, a dining room, a clock, corridors, a school newspaper, walls, trophies, a stage, a notebook… All the while Brian’s voiceover reads the essay that he’ll write at the end of the story. As his monologue cites the five main characters, we see a relevant image: a room of computers for Brian, an untidy locker room for Andy, a school counsellor’s desk for Allison, a prom queen poster for Claire, and a threateningly graffitied locker for Bender. Check out the sequence here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-KArgdek5o

Music: A pounding bass-drum kick-starts the film. Don’t You (Forget About Me) by Simple Minds wasn’t written for this movie, but it’s become inextricably associated with it. As it plays, a quotation from David Bowie song Changes appears on the screen: it’s about kids being more perceptive than adults give them credit for. The screen then symbolically smashes apart and a long instrumental mix of Don’t You plays over the opening montage talked about above. It couldn’t *be* any more arch and iconic. You know you’re watching something special. The rest of the film has far fewer famous songs than Sixteen Candles had – a result presumably of the smaller budget ($1 million, against $6.5m for Sixteen Candles). There’s some bass-heavy incidental music. At one point, Bender hums the bassline from Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love and whistles The Colonel Bogey March (the other characters join in with the latter – the first instance of them bonding). The film’s first burst of movement is after 44 minutes: scored by Fire in the Twilight by Wang Chung, the kids run through the school corridors trying to avoid being seen by Vernon. Later the group dance about in the library to Karla Devito’s We Are Not Alone. It’s an explosion of emotion, a release of passion after a long, fraught scene. In its strange, kooky way, it’s rather magnificent. Don’t You is also reprised at the end.

Beatles references: Carl says that when he was younger he wanted to be John Lennon. The character of Mr Vernon is named after British actor Richard Vernon (Goldfinger, Upstairs Downstairs, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), who John Hughes knew from the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night.

Review: “We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it.” What’s most striking about this film is its economy. Seven characters, one building, one day. This theatre-like construction results in some notably long scenes. We’re inside the library for a total of 71 minutes and 57 seconds (on the Region 2 DVD anyway). The whole film is only 92 minutes 58 – meaning 77 per cent of it is set in one room. There are cutaways to corridors and offices, and scenes outside, but we stay in that library for long stretches – a continuous chunk of over 20 minutes in the final third. Thankfully, there’s a *terrific* cast with no weak link. Three of the five lead actors also made St Elmo’s Fire in the same year, while the other two had just made Sixteen Candles – this is the birth of the Brat Pack. But that tabloid tag does them a disservice: these are quality actors. They’d had three weeks of rehearsals before the camera rolled, and were primed and fresh. And the direction is fantastic, with staging and blocking often telling the story (another stage technique). Check out the early moments. The two most similar kids, Claire and Andy, instinctively sit next to each other when they arrive; weirdo Allison sits as far away as possible; meek Brian sits where he’s told; while agent provocateur Bender can’t sit still and prowls the space. The key scene – that 20-minute segment – sees the five kids sitting in the library, slightly stoned and ready to talk. ‘Stoned’ is significant: again, it’s Bender who gets things moving. He’s also the first to talk openly about his fears. But things turn darker and more serious with a very slow circular camera move around Andy as he discusses his father’s disappointment and how it affects him. The barriers have been broken down, the conversation turns confessional, and the characters are sitting in a democratic semi-circle (again, storytelling through blocking). But it’s also brutally honest: popular kids Claire and Andy admit that, despite the bond they’ve all built, on Monday morning things will be back to normal. It might not be especially deep stuff to say that when you’re young things are tough in a way that adults forget about; that all those problems are basically their parents’ fault. But it’s incredibly effective drama, thanks to the writing and the performances. It’s funny, charming, touching and endlessly enjoyable. Shame about the makeover, though.

Ten hot beef injections out of 10

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