Perhaps no genre ages as badly as High School Melodrama. Because its appeal rests on ephemeral trends in fashion, language, and physical appearance, it’s easy to mock the follies of teenagers past, and to drown out any universal message about the adolescent “rites of passage” that filmmakers might try to convey.
On the surface, The Breakfast Club, the quintessential 80s “brat pack” flick, exemplifies all that turns the fine wine of teen angst into the pungent vinegar of hipster cynicism. Starting with Simple Minds opus “Don’t You Forget About Me” blaring under the credits, and concluding with Judd Nelson’s fist pump in the air arrested in freeze frame, it risks becoming a dated artifact rather than a universal statement on the life of the American teenager. Even worse, the movie wants to “relate” to the kids in its audience by depicting its characters as representatives of high school social groups, interjecting top 40 songs into its score, or initiating a 25 minute rap session where the protagonists work out their “issues”. To be honest, My 23 year old self felt hip to this jive when the movie came out, and over the years it became a touchstone for everything I hated about the manipulative relationship between Hollywood and the youth audience.
Upon re-watch, my growing sensitivity to the filmmaking process unexpectedly tempered my impulse to go off on a political screed. What The Breakfast Club says is still problematic: It reinforces gender stereotypes by insisting that girls should self actualize in “feminine’ ways. The sexual harassment of one character, culminating in a notorious crotch bite, seems more than a bit too uncomfortable today. While Hughes certainly bakes a lot of ideological assumptions into the script, he is not a polemicist. The Breakfast Club is not, as I’d remembered , a grand sociological statement on the overcoming of teenage angst. It is a love letter to the excesses of what Thomas Schatz called genres of integration, films that weave a certain musicality in dramatic writing (hence, the term melodrama) to conjure deeply sentimental responses from the audience. To accomplish this, Hughes reconfigures new aesthetic modes introduced in the 60s and 70s to old genres (nod to @wallflower) in such a way as to locate the movie in a specific time and space in order to convey a sense of timelessness.
This is not, however, immediately obvious by the manner in which he introduces the characters. Beginning with a voice over delivered by Brian (otherwise known as the Brain, played by Hughes stalwart Anthony Michael Hall), the audience is put on notice that society sees the film’s five protagonists as stereotypes, not as people with complex feelings and inner struggles. Soon, the story reveals that Brian, and four other students, Benner (The Criminal [Judd Nelson]), Andrew (The Athlete [Emilio Estevez]), Allison (the Basket Case [Ally Sheedy]), and Claire (The Princess [Hughes muse Molly Ringwald]), are serving a weekend detention for various misdemeanors. They are assigned to use their time cloistered in the school library to meditate on their sins by writing an essay as to who they think they are. While this meditative method of rehabilitation, reminiscent of those advocated by early penal reformer Benjamin Rush, was intended to guide miscreants into correcting their deviant behavior, it becomes obvious that the real purpose for this exercise is to punish the students by separating them from their friends and normal routines.
As it turns out, each student has issues with adult authority, beginning with their parents. Bender and Andrew have abusive and overbearing fathers, and Allison is ignored and resorts to acts of extreme weirdness, like eating Captain Crunch sandwiches, for attention. Claire serves as an emotional ping-pong in her parent’s crumbling marriage, and Brian exercises a neurotic compulsion to please his folks by relentlessly pursuing academic perfection. Even the assistant principal overseeing the punishment, Mr. Vernon (Paul Gleeson, representing the epitome of administrative impotence) seems to have drawn the short straw for the assignment. When he isn’t bullying and insulting his charges at the first opportunity, he’s wandering the halls and making Styrofoam helicopters at his desk. As retribution for defying the tyrannical superego, all must submit to the tyranny of boredom
Bender, the main target of Gleason’s wrath, is the first to rebel, disrupting the exercise by instigating personal attacks his fellow detainees in order to get negative attention. Paradoxically, by playing practical jokes on Vernon, such as removing screws from the library door, he elicits a conspiracy of silence from his compatriots, the first sign of a path towards integration. As Vernon grows increasingly frustrated with Bender’s antics, he becomes willfully negligent in his supervision, allowing the kids to smoke Bender’s pot stash, (the integrating object, as Robert Mckee would say), play cheesy 80s dance hits over the P.A. system, and generate the aforementioned group therapy session where secret feelings are revealed through insults, tears, and startled looks of sudden self recognition. By the film’s end, the kids forge a path in which the inner personalities that challenge their stereotypical surfaces emerge in their actions and behaviors, initiating self awareness and new capacity for intimacy. The Criminal and the Basket Case let down their emotional guard, the Princess expresses signs of affection and intimacy, the Athlete finds a reserve to withstand peer pressure, and the Brain learns to accept his imperfections. By the end of the shift, they, and we, see their group as an amalgamation of their generation’s high school experience.
The psychological journey from the varieties of self pity to the epiphany of human connection isn’t new to the movies. Musicals and domestic melodrama have chartered this course for years, and some earlier 80s versions of this theme, such as Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), were arguably more revolutionary. What matters is the film’s overall coordination of dramatic elements. Hughes adapts the overly theatrical conventions of his script, beginning with its constricted setting and 8 hour time frame, to a visual style that would break from the emphasis on trends found in of earlier high school movies. He also intends to enhance, rather than suppress, the empathetic bond shared by the characters and viewers through this process.
And here, Mr. Burgundy Suit, is where the film gets Stanislovkian.
Hughes grounds the dramatic action in a specific place and time by tweaking the production in such a way that assists the actors in locating their character. Shermer High School is actually in a Chicago suburb (although the movie was shot in Iowa) (the actor who plays the janitor actually attended there, and his yearbook picture is briefly shown in the opening montage). It’s an enclosed school expressive of some of the Foucauldian trends in public works architecture at the time. This is particularly evident in the main library set, which is multi-storied, with a running balcony and glass doors, and adorned with multiple rooms on the upper floor overlooking the lower courtyard. This space represents the amalgamation of knowledge and surveillance. Though its look is highly naturalistic thanks to the flattening use of fluorescent lighting, it also symbolizes the tension the characters feel in their relationship to adult authority. It relegates them to objects of sociological scrutiny while expecting them to control their feelings about being objectified. Hughes, taking a cue from Sidney Lumet, had the actors rehearse on the set while it was being constructed, and much of the film’s blocking came from their interaction with the soundstage.
(Hughes also borrows another signature move from Lumet, beginning the picture with deep focus compositions establishing the location of multiple characters within the shot, then slowly [and almost imperceptibly] moving to close ups by the third act. This template subtly conveys the rising arc of the drama by enhancing the growing intimacy between characters via eyeline matching cuts as the drama escalates.)
Costuming and music follow this naturalistic trend, allowing Hughes to avoid the traps where teen movies fall into instant anachronism. For the most part, filmmaker’s exploit the most obvious trends in music, fashion, and consumerism that inevitably become obsolete. Here, Hughes minimizes flashiness and ostentation. Ringwald’s dresses in muted, off white colors, Estevez’s letterman clothing is tightly paired down to highlight his physique. Other characters seem defined not by what they are wearing but how the wear it. Nelson, and Sheedy don their outfits in loose, uneven, and uncoordinated layers, conveying the late fall Great Lakes climate in which the drama is set.
This attention to detail resulted in several great performances from the regulars of the Hughes stock company. Ringwald, who achieved stardom in the director’s Sixteen Candles the previous year, utilizes her reputation as a preternaturally gifted listener on set. Hughes wrote a role in which her character learns to give of herself to those who are emotionally closed off and hostile to human intimacy. Playing to her performing strengths, he emphasizes actress’s natural generosity towards her cast mates.
Likewise, Hall fully embodies an idealized version of the director in his youth: Bright, perceptive, articulate, socially malleable, and adept at hiding his neuroses under a front of relentless achievement. If Ringwald possessed an instinctual gift for feeding back cues from the other actors, Hall seemed to embody the spirit of his mentor in a completely unaffected manner. He comes up with an endless variety of physical ticks and reactions without an ounce of self consciousness. As in the other Hughes films in which Hall was cast, his character achieves integration without romantic self actualization, a move worthy of a more detailed psychological interpretation.
While not demonstrating the creative range of his co-stars, Estevez utilizes the power of his physique at rest to tamp down on what might have been a temptation to over act . This makes the moment when he rips off his jacket and breaks out into back flips all the more powerful, as it represents an unloosening of restraint at a point when the antagonism between the characters transforms into a feeling of openness and intimacy.
Benner and Allison, I suspect, were characters at the margins of Hughes’ sight during high school, and there is something a bit forced in the writing that Nelson and Sheedy can’t quite nail down to earth. Their shouting and gesticulating feels tonally off and threatens to expose the plot contrivances underneath the naturalistic artifice. Since Bender is the catalyst for the film’s dramatic trajectory, this unevenness pulls the viewer out of the movie at times. This was a major reason for my initial dislike for the movie, but I’ll concede that this less subtle form of theatricality is essential for understanding the picture’s overall form.
As I mentioned earlier, The Breakfast Club is essentially a melodrama, and at times even a musical, but the movie overall grounds its emotional excesses to a relatable, work-a-day world that is immediately recognizable, as it corresponds to things we know exist, and expresses feelings that we have all shared. From a set of selective stereotypes, the characters and the audience see a collective portrait of the American teenager. It is not “reality”, but a romantic gesture of generational unity as achieved through self realization. While dubious in much of its ideology, particularly with gender, it is subtly effective in its naturalistic and regionally specific aesthetic, which holds its excess of feeling to a time and space that still feels contemporary. The movie may have been set over 30 years ago, but it still looks like the present. Lesson learned, you can sell even the most over the top emotions in your movies by being fundamentally true to your setting.