The Breakfast Club seems as if it could have been made by a bunch of teenagers. I don’t mean to say that it’s amateurish – the camerawork is actually fairly sophisticated for a high-school comedy. Rather, the movie is so earnest, awkward and exasperated by adulthood that is doesn’t just remember or understand what it’s like to be a teenager. The Breakfast Club embodies the experience.
Writer-director John Hughes structures his film as a chamber piece: five students at a suburban Chicago high school spend a Saturday together serving detention in the library. Each conveniently represents a familiar teen “type, ” which the movie will then spend 100 minutes or so trying to deconstruct. Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald) is the princess prom queen; Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez) is the jock; John Bender (Judd Nelson) is the burnout; Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall) is the nerd; and Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) is the loner.
These kids mix like oil and water – only Claire and Andrew even acknowledge each other – yet they’re united against Vernon (Paul Gleason), the assistant principal who can barely contain his seething contempt for anyone under 30. Eventually – in solidarity against Vernon, out of utter boredom and with the help of some marijuana – they open up to each other and discover what they have in common. Indeed, what all teenagers share: aggravation over never quite feeling understood.
How does Hughes capture this better than most films about teens? Mainly by getting superb performances from his ensemble cast.
It’s hard to say which turn is the most crucial. I’d probably go with Nelson as John Bender, the troublemaker. Nelson has a number of standout scenes, including his early face-off with Vernon, in which his stubborn defiance earns him a bunch more Saturdays in detention. It’s not the bravado that’s impressive, but the twinge of regret that flickers across Nelson’s face afterwards, hinting that Bender is, deep down, frustrated by his lack of self-control.
Nelson is jarring, scary and brilliantly bitter.
Even better is the monologue Bender delivers imagining what life is like in Brian’s house. After performing a sickly sweet Leave it to Beaver routine in the voices of Brian and his dad, Bender segues into an impression of his own home life, which he characterizes as being defined by rage and abuse. Unhinged and angry, Nelson is jarring, scary and brilliantly bitter.
This scene also taps into what may be the defining theme of The Breakfast Club: parental failure. Contrary to what Bender imagines, Brian reveals that his parents put such intense academic pressure on him that he has considered suicide. Hall provides comic relief for much of the film, but here he forgoes the stuttering and bumbling for a straightforward depiction of adolescent despair.See also:
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