Wednesday, July 23, 2014

AMC Classic Series:The Breakfast Club

I've seen this movie dozens of times since 1985. It was a film that I used in my Small Group Communication class to discuss several different concepts of group dynamics, include roles, norms, power, self-disclosure and climate. All of those points are still interesting but this is a film blog and the real reason for discussing it are the cinematic qualities of the film. There are three subjects that I want to address in regard to the film making; the setting of the film, the themes of the film and the performances.

I was listening to a podcast today that discussed a movie that was based on a play, and the participants wondered how that film could have been done on the stage with the number of locations that were used. I'd go the opposite direction, why hasn't anyone turned this into a play? It is perfect for a community theater or high school little theater project. There is one main location, two secondary locations and then some transition material that takes place mostly in hallways. This film is ninety percent five people talking in a single room. John Hughes, the writer-director manages to make the potentially claustrophobic location interesting by having the characters move seating positions, step off into side areas temporarily and insert two or three sequences where a chase or an escape occurs just outside of the room. I do think that many audience members will be a bit tense because there is not a lot of action, but the characters manage to keep things compelling.

The first time I saw it, I was young enough that I could largely identify with the themes of alienation being expressed here. This is a Generation X movie, just as that generation was being defined. Kids felt out of touch with their parents, mostly because the parents had achieved some level of economic status that they had expectations and demands on their kids that the young people were unsure they would be able to live up to. The kids were also sometimes resentful of the expectations being heaped on them. As I have grown older, I tend to see a little more that this is high school drama being played out here. There have always been cliques, parents are often less than what we might hope, and bullying and social jockeying have always been a part of adolescence. The movie starts off with a quote from a David Bowie song. It feels more appropriate to the counter-cultural revolution of the late sixties than the bleak indifference that is the subject of this mid-eighties film. What is not overwrought however are the feelings of loneliness and isolation that kids can feel, even when surrounded by others. Only one character claims to have no friends, all the others resent their friends, are pressured by them or are defensive about them in some way or other. The interaction between the characters may border on maudlin or hyperbolic at times but they are real emotions and they reflect the way real kids might have felt.

What was most impressive to me were the performances by the cast. Judd Nelson goes a little over the top occasionally, but the scene where he reveals through mimicry his family dynamic is heart breaking. Watching the other actors respond to it was an opportunity to see how acting so often is not about being at the center and having the most lines, but being in the moment and treating the characters honestly.  Emilio Estevz was never this good in anything else he appeared in. His Jock, Andy, feels powerless and uncertain in the face of his future and his expressions show that. There is a nice warm moment at the end when he connects with Allison that gives him a little more hope. Molly Ringwald had "Sixteen Candles" behind her and "Pretty In Pink" in front, and she was in the sweet spot of her career playing the contemplative pretty girls with a lack of confidence. Ali Sheedy's character does not even speak for the first third of the film but she manages to command attention. Her lines when she is manipulating Claire are sarcastic but also thoughtful and unpredictable. Anthony Michael Hall is the biggest surprise, I forgot how touching and honest and funny his character was. The look on his face when he delivers his explanation of why he has a fake ID is great, as if he could not understand why anyone would not have the same reason. Paul Gleason may have had a bigger role in some other movie but I can't think of what it might be. Most of his other parts he is in the background, here he is the main antagonist. As I got older I understood his defensive impulses more, they reflect years of experience and frustration but also an inability to change. His voice conveys those very characteristics when he is having his heart to heart with Carl the Janitor but especially in his one on one confrontation with Bender.

Is this still the must see movie for high school kids to bond over? I don't know. It still worked for me as I watched it on the big screen. The final defiant salute that Bender gives still brings a little thrill as I identify with the rebels for a moment. The homophobic language would not go far in a script these days, and the pot smoking would probably earn it a more restrictive rating. I would not want to encourage getting high as the best way to break the walls between kids in their teens. That it worked for the "Breakfast Club" is probably more of a screenwriters crutch than reality, but the feelings that get discussed and the frustration of the kids, now that is genuine.


SJHoneywell said...

For me, the most telling comment of what you wrote is that you were of an age similar to the characters when you first saw it. So was I, and it's the reason I love it. I think you have to be that age to really love this film. It's sort of like "Catcher in the Rye" in that respect. If you read it at the right age, it becomes something you love. At the wrong age, you don't get why people love it.

I love this one. I love the characters, and how easy it is for anyone of this age to so immediately identify with one of the five kids.

And you're right about the performances, too. There's a reason these kids had careers at this time.

Richard Kirkham said...

I had yet to go to a high school reunion so I still felt some connection to that group, but I am definitely a Boomer as opposed to a Gen X. The suburban setting probably also helps me connect. Had this been a Big City H.S. or a country institution, I would probably have rolled my eyes some.

le0pard13 said...

Another fine write-up of a true 80s classic, Richard. I think you can guess it makes an appearance in a series I've going, too ;-)

Richard Kirkham said...

Simple Minds has One song I know, I suspect that it is on your i-pod.

SJHoneywell said...

For what it's worth in terms of context, I'm early Gen-X. This film was released during my senior year of high school, so I really was at exactly the right age to get it on a deep level.