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The Breakfast Club

The Breakfast Club (Hughes, 1985)

This review contains spoilers.

The fact is I've been feeling a bit under the weather over the last few days. I needed something comforting, unchallenging, whose rhythms I knew like the back of my hand so I could de-stress, expand in my couch and feel my way through the movie without having to think about it too hard. Seeing The Breakfast Club pop up on Netflix, I decided to give it another viewing, although it's probably a strange choice given my history with the movie. For one, I didn't grow up in the '80s. I was born in 1991 and was of high school age in the 2000s, although I guess nostalgia works in twenty-year circles and this movie has lingered in the public imagination as a definitive portrayal of high school life. (I first became aware of the movie when my middle school art teacher jokingly threatened the class with a weekend detention. "You ever seen The Breakfast Club?" He thankfully didn't follow through.)

But it's also a movie I've found a bit frustrating, with passages of greatness undermined by its adherence to commercial demands. I was perhaps hoping to wrestle again with its contradictions, even though I've revisited it a number of times and come away feeling the same, and in my weakened state I was unlikely to put up much of a fight. (I don't really follow sports, so I'll let you pick out your own analogy. Mike Tyson versus Evander Holyfield's ear? Sure, let's go with that. I'll play the ear.) I will concede that as I was recuperating, I found it easier to be won over by the musical interludes. These are pretty obvious commercial concessions, but at the same time, I think it captures that uniquely energizing feeling of having a song stuck in your head and feeling like it's running through you, like you're a character in a movie. (You might even say it evokes the feeling of being the "dude", like the track "I'm The Dude", featured in the scene where Emilio Estevez gets high, does a bunch of cartwheels and shatters a few windows.) And I suppose I've grown fonder of Wang Chung since my last viewing, thanks to spending more time with their soundtrack for To Live and Die in L.A. I suppose these gestures blend more easily into the DNA of John Hughes' next film, Ferris Bueller's Day Off (which is another reliable comfort watch), but I've warmed up to them here. (After having recently become obsessed with the suspenders dancing musical number from RRR, I can't help but notice how limited these characters' dance moves are, but they're also, y'know, teenagers, so I suppose I will let it slide.)

And I think the movie does capture the anxieties and charged emotions of being a teenager, even if its style can sometimes clash with the naturalism of the writing and the performances. I think most of us have known characters like this and perhaps see a bit of us in one or more of them. (Which likely explains its potency as comfort food, doubly familiar not just through cultural osmosis but also real world experience.) As a high schooler, I was somewhere between Anthony Michael Hall and Ally Sheedy, a do-gooder and attempted overachiever crossed with a weirdo making halfassed gestures towards eccentricity. Although as I've grown, I've probably shifted in Sheedy's direction, as I had nowhere near the aptitude nor the work ethic to keep overachieving in the real world. The weirdo has won. (Of course, Hughes' perspective is predominantly white, so there are probably limitations in how much I see of myself in this movie as a brown kid who went to a mostly white high school, not that I would consider that a failing of his by any means. I don't think there's a problem in writing what you know, and I think Hughes captures this exact socioeconomic milieu quite well.)

A few years ago, Molly Ringwald wrote an article for The New Yorker about revisiting the movie with her daughter. She ruminates on the movie in light of the Me Too movement, and grapples with how the movie and Hughes' other work could be so clear eyed and compassionate towards the feelings of teenage girls yet throw in blatantly insensitive gestures. (They key moment she cites in this movie is the upskirt shot of her character when Judd Nelson is hiding underneath the desk.) It's a great piece and I recommend you give it a read. As someone who's found a lot of social-justice-minded pop culture thinkpieces to be embarrassingly reductive, I think Ringwald's piece tackles the subject with a refreshing level of nuance.

I don't think Hughes is a capital-M misogynist and I don't think Ringwald intends to paint him as such, merely to suss out these contradictions and the way the camera and the writing (or even different parts of the screenplay) can act at cross purposes in fostering or interrogating these attitudes, and bring into focus how someone could be so sensitive as a filmmaker yet have such glaring blindspots. (She brings up a number of elements in Sixteen Candles, which definitely did not go down well the few times I watched the movie.) I suppose there's some truth in reflecting the gaze of the overly sexually-minded mentality of teenage boys, although I think the movie reflects on the overall idea of toxic masculinity more potently with its portrayal of the Estevez character, who seemingly embodies strong, admirable traits, but is pushed by his father to hide any semblance of weakness. (I suppose Sheedy captures his fears most succinctly: "When you grow up, your heart dies.") And the bullying and sexual posturing between Nelson and Hall certainly rings true.

Because this is such an iconic movie, and these actors will be forever associated with these roles, it's fun to consider this movie in the context of their careers, and maybe pretend that they played the same character in all their movies. Most jarring here would be Nelson, who borders on grandpa vibes these days, while Estevez' jock contrasts starkly with the snot nosed punks he played in Repo Man and Maximum Overdrive. I'll happily let Sheedy have her eccentricities after she helped save the world from nuclear holocaust in Wargames, and it's easy to see why the dorky kid played by Anthony Michael Hall toughened up into a muscular meathead in Halloween Kills. Yet its hard to think of Ringwald outside of her Hughes movies, having crystallized into an embodiment of a certain set of teenage emotions. (And whoever promoted Paul Gleason's dumbass principal to an LAPD captain deserves to have their ass fired.) I don't really have a point here, other than the fact that the cast is so iconic that it's hard to picture anyone else in these roles, especially the other actors who were considered earlier in development. Imagine Estevez, John Cusack and Nicolas Cage in the role played by Nelson, and it's hard to see them nailing that exact blend of aggrieved roughneck insouciance. (Cage perhaps could have come closest, but I think of him in this era as maybe a little too nice for the character.)

And after that digression, I must awkwardly pivot back to the fact that the one thing I still don't like about the movie is its ending. Over the course of its hour and a half or so runtime, we see these characters break out of their shells and the confines imposed on them by their social strata and the high school ecosystem, only for the weird girl to actually be secretly conventionally attractive and fall for the jock, and for the nerd to do everyone's homework. I suppose there's a bit of truth to this, in that these kids are still likely to go back to how they were and a single weekend was unlikely to change all that much about their lives and how they saw and interacted with each other, but the attempt to package this into a feel-good ending continues to not sit right with me. I suppose however, that I might be additionally sore because I see a lot of myself in the nerd, but with a dash of Nelson's antisocial tendencies, so I very much would sabotage this gesture towards false unity. "Yabadabadoo, **** all y'all, write your own mother****in' essays. Signed, Anthony Michael Hall." Yes, I'd break character to sign my name. Until the next rewatch.