Probably more than any other director, John Hughes is associated with the representation of teenage high school life and the series of movies he made in an extremely prolific few years between 1984 and 1986 were hugely influential in creating a certain representation of American high school life and American teen life in general.
Generically, Hughes’ films are closest to the teen movie; the characters are teens, they have the stereotypical teen problems (parents, basically) and the action usually takes place in the most typical teen movie location of all, the high school. Perhaps Hughes’ main claim to auteur status, however, comes from the fact that he changed that genre; whatever revisionism it has experienced was started by him. James Berardinelli points out that Hughes’ run of teen movies ‘…were a cut above the sex and booze-drenched antics of most teen comedies.’ Such comedies were very popular at the time, and they tended to emphasise crude, sex-based humour, very predictable plots and one-dimensional characters. I’ve mentioned before with regard to The Hunger Games that films aimed at younger audiences are quite often dismissed as being less worthy than those for older people; but sometimes this snobbery is completely justified. It certainly was in the case of a lot of those cheap, predictable, quickly-made teen movies. Now, however, films like The Spectacular Now or Juno – even The Hunger Games – seem to do a much better job of representing the actual lives of actual teenagers. John Walters, perhaps, started that process of revisionism in terms of teenage representation with film like Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.
Berardinelli goes on to say that of all Hughes’ films, ‘…The Breakfast Club was arguably the most insightful and emotionally-true’ and there seems to be a consensus that this is his finest film. The plot is simplicity itself; five kids are in Saturday detention. They are quickly revealed as stereotypes, handily identified in the voiceover at the star of the film as we look at a montage of a typically shabby, vandalised school; criminal, athlete, basket-case, princess, brain. These are the archetypes of the genre, constructed from all the signifiers we use to group teenage characters. They sound like a High School reinvention of Proppsian archetypes. And, like all stereotypes, they are, of course, reductive and simplistic.
At first, they seem confined to their stereotypes, as do their parents. We see each of them arrive outside of the school, ready to serve their Saturday morning detention. The “Princess”‘ father promises that he will make it up to her with gifts if she just does the detention. The “brain”‘s mother is outraged and tells him to make sure he uses the time to study. The “jock”‘s dad cares only about his son’s athletic scholarship, but tells him that it’s normal for guys to ‘screw around.’ Whoever drops the anti-social “basketcase” off squeals off without speaking to her. And the ‘criminal’ arrives after all the others, alone. They all dress appropriately to their roles, easily marked out by their respective clothing signifiers.
The ‘criminal’ – John Bender, played by Judd Nelson – is the first character to dominate. He pretends to urinate on the floor, threatens to ‘impregnate’ the ‘prom queen’ and generally tries to provoke the others. He is instantly recognisable as the ‘rebel’ – the long hair and grungey leather and plaid clothing functions as Peircian symbols of this character type. He is immediately established as a binary opposite to Emilio Estevez’s clean-cut ‘jock’, who threatens to beat him up. Estevez is seated beside Molly Ringwald’s ‘Princess’ and these proxemics combined with audience foreknowledge and genre expectation make us anticipate that these two – the only two of the five wo are ‘acceptable’ in the social hierarchy of High School – will form a partnership. The nerdy ‘Brain’ (Anthony Michael Hall) and the loner ‘basketcase’ (Ally Sheedy) are situated on right of the screen, and again, we are perhaps invited to start linking these characters together. Bender, the rebel, is by himself, at the back (of course.) And the supervising teacher, played by Paul Gleason, is a bullying, preening idiot. Another obvious and very generic binary opposition, between teens and adults, is well-established in the opening minutes of the film.
We first start to get beyond the stereotypes when ‘Princess’ Claire starts to describe the strained relationship between her parents. She is vulnerable to Bender’s teasing about her weight, her probable virginity and so on – the typical things that boys tease girls about. Clearly, she is more than her stereotype – she appears more thoughtful, vulnerable and reserved than the stereotypical “prom queen”. And this, of course, is the point of the film – to get below these stereotypes and to show how meaningless they are.
And one by one, all of the characters are revealed. The reaction shots of geeky Brian when Bender (who is the catalyst for change in the film) teases him about his family reveal to the audience that his home life is not as charmingly all-American as we might expect.
Soon, Bender reveals the nature of his own home life – violently abusive – and we see his own vulnerabilities. His reaction to this revelation is violent – he is verbally abusive to the others and smashes up a desk -and we start to see how he is made violent by the violence in his own background; but Hughes cuts to a close shot of him, eyes closed, framed tightly and trapped behind bars, and we realise that for all his bravado, he is as much a victim as the others.
The film is worst when it is most generic – Bender’s ‘escape’ from the storeroom he is confined to, his sexual ‘banter’ (which now would be sexual harassment) with Claire, the dope smoking scene and so on; at these times it is very dated. But when it is focused on delving into the reality of life for these characters, it far surpasses in quality the teen movies which preceded it. The conversation between the two most interesting characters, Andy the jock and Allison the basket-case, in which they both confess the realities of their home lives (‘… they ignore me…’) is beautifully understated given the genre from which it comes. Likewise, the only partially-resolved ending; there doesn’t appear to be any guarantee that these five students will still be friends on Monday. Such details make this film still worth watching even now.