John Hughes’ seminal teen movie turns 35 on the 7th June, and I think it’s time to ask why it’s still relevant to us in 2020. Don’t worry, this isn’t a hot take! I adore this film, but on a recent re-watch I found myself questioning why I still have such a soft spot for John Bender (Judd Nelson), who is clearly abused at both home and school, and borderline abusive himself. Or popular girl Claire (Molly Ringwald), who seems to genuinely believe that nobody understands her. Wrestler Andrew (Emilio Estevez), who is in detention because he bullied a kid; and Allison (Ally Sheedy), who seems to like the idea of everyone around her falling apart. Finally, there’s poor Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) who tried to kill himself because he’s failing one lesson.

The Breakfast Club takes place over a single day in detention, and not much actually happens. The bulk of this movie is about character development, something that would become a cornerstone of the teen film genre which John Hughes helped create. I would say it is this investment in character development that makes it a classic, maybe even ‘the’ classic teen dramedy. The importance of three-dimensional characters in today’s media landscape can’t be overstated. The notion that people, especially children, can change fluidly and continuously is one that we need to see more of, and the fact that the film takes place in a single day emphasises this continuous change. There is still time and room for these characters to grow outside of the glimpse we get of them. The very title of the film implies that they continue to have a relationship outside of the ninety minutes we see, but this isn’t essential. Instead, the film gives us the crucial reassurance that, like the characters we’ve been watching, our own growth continues.


For me, this almost-meta idea that these characters, existing in isolation within the film, will keep evolving, is made clear in the fact that we are never made to feel like any of these people are aspirational; if anything, we don’t want to be like them. Instead, the only thing we might envy is the bond they have formed by the end of the day, which brings each one of them out of their shells and reveals the all-pervasive fear of every teenager: that we might become like our parents. In the same way that we might wonder fearfully if we’re like one of these archetypal characters, they wonder if they will become their parents. It is the revelation that we are all scared of being someone we don’t like that changes the pace of the film, the mood lifting as they realise that there is actually something they can do about this fear. It is after they have all shared why they’re in detention, and why they truly, deeply hate each other that the five of them accept their difference. Then, Hughes gives us that iconic dance montage - upbeat and defiant. He subverts the quiet, studious atmosphere that we’re so used to (to be fair, he does this throughout the whole film), and reminds us that these people are just children, and they can’t be expected to have complex thoughts about their own personality traits- Claire is the best example of this.

To realise that you can still relate to these characters, even when they’re younger than you, is quite exhilarating.

Perhaps this is a big reason why my recent re-watch made me feel so strange; I’m no longer “just a child”. I’m now older than the protagonists of Mean Girls (2004), Clueless (1995), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) and even Lady Bird (2017), coming-of-age teen movies that have shaped me and so many others. To realise that you can still relate to these characters, even when they’re younger than you, is quite exhilarating. You see all of their flaws in a new light and begin to realise why the best teen comedy-dramas never frame the main character(s) as aspirational. They are not, nor do they need to be, smart or worldly. I think that The Breakfast Club is where this idea of perfect imperfection started. Hughes never positions the characters as aspirational. He gives credence to the experience of so many teenagers without adopting a judgemental perception of the shortcomings that may come as a result. They’re teenagers, and we’re just here to watch them try and figure each other out. We also get to do this through the perception of each character. Vernon and Carl (John Kapelos) obviously have different perspectives in the film, yet it is arguably their jaded view of the world that makes them sympathetic, rather than any actions of the kids themselves - which would certainly explain why I have such a soft spot for Bender.


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The Breakfast Club essentially founded the teen movie genre as we know it today. Yet it doesn’t try to be anything more than the story of five lost teens. In fact, it is because of this respectful nonchalance that it became, to generations of lost teens, more than enough. We relate to each character: we’re scared that we’ll become like Vernon, and we’re glad that they become friends, even if we might have our reservations about their relationships by the end of the film. Hughes reminds us that teenagers don’t need to be the smartest people in the world; that they make bad decisions, and that we are always motivated by the thought of being better than those who came before us. Ironically, I don’t think that any teen drama has been as good as The Breakfast Club, and despite Hughes’ complicated legacy as a director it remains a standout for many generations. The society that we find ourselves a part of in 2020 may see itself as more evolved or greatly different to 1980s Southern America (we can see a confederate flag in the library), but young people still find release in a film that allows them to see themselves represented in characters that are three-dimensional, flawed, and perfectly imperfect. We might not want to be like them, but to some extent we are. The implication at the end of the film, that the characters and their relationships will continue to grow, suggests that we will do the same, and isn’t that all teenagers really want? A reassurance that one day, you might just be a fully formed human being.

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