movie image credit: Universal Pictures

Movie Review: The Breakfast Club (1985) ***

The Breakfast Club is a legendary culture moment for Gen X about growing up. Five teenagers have detention at school on a Saturday, and the long, boring time in the library helps kids across cliques and caste realize they’re all fundamentally human.

I was born ‘88; this takes place in ‘84; this was not part of my personal canon growing up. I’ve seen it before though, just not in a while. These days I usually watch older movies and think, “Wow, everyone looks so young.” Everyone in The Breakfast Club somehow still looks exactly my mom’s age. I think it’s because this is such an anachronistic movie: beyond the music and fashion, the exact dynamic expressed between generations is distinct to Gen X.

I expected the story to be more timeless. If you boil it down to the core message — one where People Are People, and Growing Up Is Hard — that feels extremely timeless. Yet the way that the people interact feels distinct to its time.

We’ve spent decades growing away from the sort of social attitudes that made open mockery of weird, naive, earnest, or *anyone* culturally acceptable. Relentless bullying from Bender against his fellow students gets groans and eye-rolls, even when he pulls a switch blade–that’s how commonplace it seems. One kid is found with a gun in his locker and sent to detention instead of help. Violence is both explicit and verbal. Also, there is no communication between these children that is not hyper-aware of their position in society and prioritizes that before anything else, so accepting other people as human must be their primary development. They are still far away from a point where they might actually be able to build healthy relationships, and that’s so depressing.

Further, the dynamic between Gen X and their parents is distinct. Older gens were extremely traumatized by the depression and great wars; they passed a lot of authoritarian junk onto their children out of fear. There was such a rift in trust between many parents/kids, and this haunts our protagonists. Remember how we judged Helicopter Parents? That was a lot of Gen X trying to figure out how to *actually* bond with their kids, because their parents expected them to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Millennials, meanwhile, have coined “gentle parenting” and get judged for being too nice. I suspect we’re going to see a swing back into more trauma-influenced parenting trends through the 21st century, but I’m not sure the teen/parent dynamic will ever quite look the way it did in 1980s.

Every character in The Breakfast Club feels vividly real–probably because they *are* so screwed up in such authentic ways. The personal-feeling nature of it — the fact I can only associate these characters/situations with people I actually know, who were not adults for me when I needed them — means I just feel uniformly bad encountering it. But that same very evocative personal nature is its charm for many fans.

I can’t add anything about the Claire/Bender dynamic that wasn’t better described by Molly Ringwald in a thoughtful article reflecting on her time working with John Hughes. I feel pragmatic about the toxic masculinity of this era of cinema. Even before seeing Ringwald remark that Hughes took rejection like Bender did, I sensed the story is obviously a very personal one to Hughes, and the fact he can harass the girl thusly and get at her by the end is obviously fantasy fulfillment for the creator. This is true of quite a few movies. If someone is narratively rewarded for bad behavior, it’s usually fantasy fulfillment for the creator.

Of course, one wants to sympathize with Bender/Hughes, especially if Bender’s story of abuse has any reflection from Hughes’s life. Men have learned throughout the generations that they can get sympathy despite bad behavior if they claim an abuse history. It’s human instinct to protect our fellow person. But loads of people are abused without turning into abusers, sexually assaulting girls, and pulling knives on classmates; likewise Hughes was more than grown enough to handle rejection without violent explosions.

I don’t think anyone likes seeing Allison’s transformation at the end of the movie, nor do I find her HFN with Andy satisfying or compelling. We’ve seen too many transformation from “ugly” girls to “actually pretty” (whether or not the movie meant to say that) to take it as anything but policing aesthetics of femininity. I mean, the two of them are still better than Claire and Bender. I am willing to accept these things as an expression of the theme, though: In order to accept that people are just people, these kids had to realize that they can do and be all the same things as their peers. They can date anyone, dress any way they like, and be who they want. That’s a good message, even if it gets bogged down by grossness.

After all, this movie is predominantly a fantasy for a successful white dude who wrote extremely offensive coked-out comedy (citation: Molly Ringwald’s article), and I just don’t think it’s reasonable to expect it to be anything else. It is what it is. It’s a microcosm of a generation that feels toxic as hell, but it was trying to heal. And when I take it from that direction, I can appreciate it, even if my urge to rewatch is going to be pretty low. All I can think is that the people who relate to this movie must have *really* needed it, and I’m comfortable setting it down as “not for me, not my time, but clearly a noteworthy part of cinema.”

We are all screwed up in our ways, and Hughes allowed those people to be visible, to be heroic, to be *cool*. His work is fascinating, problematic, and nuanced, and The Breakfast Club is one of the problematic but also more iconic examples.

(movie credit: Universal Pictures)

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