A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 502 – The Breakfast Club

The Breakfast Club – July 15th, 2011

This is one of those movies we’ve been saving. It’s an old favorite of mine and I know it by heart, plus I’ve had years to think of things I want to say about it. Because while it is a favorite of mine, I have some issues with it. There was no special reason for watching it today. It wasn’t a terrible day and we aren’t celebrating the 1980s. But we did have breakfast for dinner (cinnamon french toast and bacon) and I did have a long and tiring day full of shifting books around and this was both familiar and welcome at the end of a day like that. And perfect to go with breakfast.

John Hughes has made a number of iconic 1980s movies but this one is, perhaps, the best known movie of his little list. I always liked that it was basically a character study, or a series of character studies, that covered a range of character types. The plot here is almost nonexistent because it’s not a movie that needs a complicated plot. And what makes it so simple also allows the characters to be seen more entirely instead of in focus on a specific issue. What would we learn about Duckie in Pretty in Pink if we got more of him than just his crush on Andie? How much more would we know about Jake in 16 Candles if we saw him outside of the ill-fated party he throws? Strip off the friends and the parties and the long-standing crushes from everyone in these movies and toss the characters together to interact without it all. And that’s what you get here.

There are really only seven characters here, and two of them are minor in comparison to the other five. There’s Vice Principal Vernon and there’s Carl, the janitor, and they get some good moments both with the kids and away from them. And then you get the five central figures: John Bender, Brian Johnson, Claire Standish, Allison Reynolds and Andrew Clark. A criminal, a brain, a princess, a basketcase and an athlete, respectively. At least, that’s what they are according to the social circles they’re in and the labels given to them both by the adults around them and their peers. A few of them know of each other – Claire and Andrew clearly have friends in common and their social circles mingle – but in general these are five people who don’t normally interact with each other and never would have if not for the fact that they have to spend an entire Saturday at school in detention together.

And that right there is the set-up for the movie. It’s about these five teenagers and how they are so very different but have to spend a day together and how through that day they find out about each other. Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the point of the movie is to show that they’re all the same. It’s more that the point is that despite their differences, they all face different aspects of the same pressures and while they react differently to it all they are all reacting. And they don’t end up throwing off the trappings of their social circles (except one and I will get to that because I have Things To Say) and declaring that they’re not going to take it any more, but perhaps they learn enough about each other to be more open about the experiences of others. Maybe not in high school, but later on. And they definitely all end up having to face some unpleasant truths about themselves.

All five are in detention for different reasons. Bender pulled a fire alarm, Claire ditched class to go shopping, Andrew bullied another student, Brian brought a gun to school and Allison simply had nothing better to do for the day (which is amusing considering that Vernon doesn’t seem to realize she doesn’t belong there – one would think he’d have a list but that’s just how little he cares, apparently). We don’t know these reasons right at the start. We learn about Claire early and John’s infraction is shared with the group by Vernon. But Andrew and Brian tell the others later, after they’ve all bickered and prodded and tested (and gotten high and danced while Vernon isn’t around). And Allison shares when everyone else has had a say.

Allison is my biggest problem with this movie. I love her character, who is quirky and odd and not in a cutesy way either. She’s genuinely an outsider and she seems to like it that way for most of the movie. Until Claire makes her over, taking off her heavy make-up and giving her a white headband to hold her hair back and somewhere she gets a frilly sleeveless top to wear and then Allison isn’t Allison the basketcase. She’s not Allison the outsider. She’s Allison the just-like-everyone-else. She does protest a little, pointing out to Claire that she still likes her heavy black eyeliner, but then she wins the jock’s favor with her new softened cookie-cutter image and it makes me want to puke. None of the other characters give up any of the core of what makes them themselves, but Allison does. So she can be palatable to the jock in a socially acceptable way.

Honestly, I think what this movie does right vastly outweighs what it does wrong. It does so much right, from starting everyone out on rocky footing and then giving them a common enemy in the thoroughly detestable Dick Vernon to having them bond through fun only to end up having a serious discussion of their problems. The performances are fantastic and each character manages to become sympathetic in turn, even after being unpleasant in other ways. Claire is conceited and privileged, assuming that she and her friends are indeed universally adored. But she’s also right in being sick of being unable to do anything without her friends’ approval and she’s right in being sick of being a pawn in her parents dysfunctional relationship. Andrew is a bully who physically assaulted another student, causing him physical and emotional harm. But he owns up to the fact that he can’t think for himself and that he wants out from the pressure his father puts on him and that he feels crushing guilt for what he did. Brian and Andrew end up finding more in common than they realized, sharing pressure but one for athletics and one for academics. Brian’s an intellectual snob but he’s also entertained suicidal thoughts and while no one encourages that, it’s clear that no one in the group wants him to feel that way. Bender’s straight up an asshole to everyone in the group but Allison, whom he largely ignores. But you hear more about his home life than anyone else’s and what you hear is more than unpleasant and definitely more common than I care to consider. Allison you learn the least about, but everything about her says she’s used to being invisible and always expects the worst, so she acts out and has no social skills and doesn’t see why she should act any different. And their conversations are interesting and telling and then it all goes to hell. Because of romance.

This is the problem: The movie tries to pair everyone off. Bender and Claire makes sense, even though he’s said some pretty incredibly horrible things to her. He’s the bad boy who’ll horrify her parents and he gets the cred for having scored a prom queen. But Allison and Andrew have never made sense to me. They’re paired off just because. There’s no real lead in to it and the only character development purpose to it is to make Allison “normal” and because she is so changed Andrew just gets a pretty girlfriend. One wonders what his father would think once he meets Allison and realizes she’s not precisely a cheerleader. And of course, since there are five characters and we’ve already paired off Bender (who is very much the most noticeable character) and Claire we’ve got to pair off someone else! Must have more romance! And that leaves Brian out in the cold. I remember watching this for the first time and wondering why the nerd got left alone. He was definitely my favorite. But no, while the other four end up smooching he sits and writes a paper for everyone to hand in to Vernon. Alone and stuck with doing everyone’s homework too (manipulated into it by Claire, of course). What a disappointment.

There’s a whole lot in this movie that I consider to be brutally honest and rather daring to put on film. It says uncomfortable things about teenagers and the things they think and say and do and feel. The whole bit with Vernon and Carl talking about the kids and the future? That’s not meant to be comforting to adults. And it’s not really meant to be comforting to kids either. It’s not a neat movie, full of easy answers. But then the ending is all wrapped up in frilly bows, as if doing someone’s make-up or handing them a diamond earring will change their lives or who they are. And the nerd is still alone. After all of these truths and discussions, with the ending declaring that each of the kids is a criminal, a basketcase, an athlete, a princess and a brain, at the same time, it’s undermined its own message. So I prefer to ignore the ending and cut the movie off before all that happens. When it’s still saying something interesting and not something predictable.

July 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Breakfast Club

July 15, 2011

The Breakfast Club

Amanda was wiped out after a long day at work today and suggested we have breakfast for dinner. So I made cinnamon french toast and bacon with scrambled eggs, and I wondered aloud “what would be a good movie to watch while having breakfast for dinner?” To which she replied “How about The Breakfast Club?” Sounded perfect to me.

I was a freshman in high school when this movie came out. I didn’t see it however until probably two or three years later when it was on video. At the time I was not terribly comfortable with the movie. I enjoyed the rebellion against authority thing well enough I suppose, but there was a lot of vulgarity and talk about sex and drug use that I didn’t particularly enjoy. You have to remember just how painfully and awkwardly nerdish I was at that age. I made Brian, the nerd in this movie, seem positively outgoing and sociable.

Of course this movie is the quintessential eighties movie about being a teenager, so I guess I have to cut it some slack. John Hughes touched a nerve with this movie and insured a career of speaking to teenagers for years to come. Something about this story of five kids with desperate backgrounds bonding during a Saturday in detention rang true for millions of kids struggling to figure out who they were and how they fit into the world, and has continued to do so for decades since.

It’s a startlingly simple plot: five kids, each representing a different high school stereotype, are forced to spend a Saturday together in detention. There’s a jock, a princess, a nerd, a rebel and a basket case. The loud mouthed and irritating assistant principal Vernon tells them that they are not aloud to move from their seats in the library and must each write an essay about “who do you think you are.” Because they are all from different social strata they find it initially difficult to get along, but as the movie progresses they start to find common ground and discover that maybe they’re more than the labels that are applied to them. It helps that they have a laughably inept but self-obsessed authority figure they can collectively agree not to listen to.

It’s pure fantasy, of course. That’s part of its appeal. It is about teenagers learning something about themselves and sticking it to “the man.” In that regard I think I liked Ferris Bueller a lot more. This movie tries too hard to make these clear stereotypes feel more human. It tries to make them real people with insecurities and teenaged angst and all that, witch doesn’t fit with the parts of the movie that feel more like wish fulfilment. At least the characters acknowledge that their little bonding session is fantasy – with Claire (the princess) stating right out that even after learning that these other people could be her friends she wouldn’t acknowledge them in the light of day.

There’s so much in this movie that even now I don’t enjoy. John Bender (the rebel) is the big instigator of everything that happens and I think he’s supposed to be the “hero” of the movie, if it could be said to have one, but he’s so abrasive and irritating as a character. He’s precisely the kind of person I spent most of my high school years avoiding. So is the jock, Andrew. I sympathise most (of course) with Brian the nerd and Allison the oddball, because I was very much both of those things in my formative years. But this movie spends so much time trying to make Brian cool by association, and it utterly betrays Allison in the end, turning her into just another pretty girl when she started out as so cool and dark and peculiar.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of fun moments and laughs in this movie. It has that John Hughes hipness that permeated all of his films, and it’s hard to resist that simple appeal. I might not think much of the stereotypes and the characters on display, but at least I can appreciate an attempt to say that people are more than the cliques they hang in. The notion that people are more complex than we allow ourselves to believe with our first impression is fundamental to my view of the universe, so it’s nice to see that in a movie.

I actually do like this movie. I can’t help myself. I don’t enjoy being reminded of my awkward teenage years (this would be why I don’t attend high school reunions) but this movie is an unavoidable part of the common lexicon of anybody who grew up as part of my generation or of any generation after mine. Maybe I just resent the fact that the nerd doesn’t get the girl in the end. At least my own story turned out better.

July 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment