Writer-director John Hughes was never shy about demonstrating just how insensitive parents can be to their children. In The Breakfast Club, he waits all of three minutes to do just that. “Get in there and use the time to your advantage,” Brian Johnson’s mother barks in the opening moments of a movie that has become for many the encapsulation of the teenage experience. When Brian (Anthony Michael Hall)—the “brain,” the most gifted and troubled of the five kids about to serve a Saturday’s worth of detention—calmly explains that he’s not supposed to study because detention is a time to “sit there and do nothing,” his mother, played by the actor’s actual mother, Mercedes Hall, shoots back: “Well, mister, you figure out a way to study.”
It’s a harsh moment, but particularly harsh on second (or by now, more like 850th) viewing, when the audience knows Brian is being punished for bringing a flare gun to school, and that he had somewhat improbably planned to use that gun to commit suicide due to the mountain of academic pressure his parents pile on him. Under the circumstances, his mom should probably take it down a notch.
But the first time I saw The Breakfast Club, in 1985, at age 12, I didn’t know all that yet. To me, Mrs. Johnson just seemed like a believably fed-up parent who sets rigidly high, semi-unfair standards for her son. In other words: the classic nagging, high-maintenance mom, a figure I recognized. I watched that scene and thought: That sounds like something my mom might say to me. In 2015, as a mother myself, I watch The Breakfast Club and think: In a context that doesn’t involve the specter of suicide or a flare gun that went off in a locker, I can imagine saying the same thing to my own son someday.
At the risk of quoting one high-school movie while discussing another, that’s the thing about fans who watched The Breakfast Club in first release, seeing it now: We’ve gotten older, but it stays the same age. Technically, the masterwork of John Hughesian teen cinema turns 30 this year, a milestone that’s currently being celebrated with a new Blu-ray release, a special screening at South By Southwest, a re-release in theaters later this month, and, of course, a healthy smattering of celebratory articles. But in many ways, The Breakfast Club will always feel like a teenager, or at least a 97-minute expression of the hormonally charged mix of insecurity, defiance, angst, and hubris that pumps through the blood of many American teenagers. It’s impossible to watch it and not feel those old John Bender fist-pumping feelings all over again, especially for people who came of age in the mid-1980s and saw The Breakfast Club so many times that it seeped into their pores faster than a dollop of Clearasil. For them, for us, it feels even more personal, like a badge of our generational identity.
For the cluster of kids born in the shadow of the Baby Boomers, and later demographically overshadowed again by the millennials, no teen-movie anthem ever expressed our feelings of cultural neglect more effectively than that Simple Minds track that blasts from the speakers the minute The Breakfast Club begins. We aren’t Generation X. We’re Generation “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” Though it’s worth noting that African-American, Latino, and other non-Caucasians, who were absent entirely from The Breakfast Club, and just as under-represented in Hughes’ other teen offerings, may not feel the same connection to this movie. That’s another thing The Breakfast Club shares with high school: Even a movie that aims to speak for everyone of a certain age will inevitably make someone feel left out.
Regardless, those of us who grew up with The Breakfast Club aren’t kids anymore. We’ve grown up, gotten jobs, become parents. Some of us may not even use the term “neo-maxi-zoom-dweebie” on a regular basis anymore. (Some of us.) It’s only natural for us to look at The Breakfast Club now and empathize more with the adults than we used to, perhaps even to notice that Hughes’ portrayal of grown-ups here is more nuanced than it initially seemed.
In a particularly scathing review included in the book 5001 Nights At The Movies, Pauline Kael criticizes The Breakfast Club for appealing to young audiences “by blaming adults for the kids’ misery and enshrining the kids’ most banal longings to be accepted and liked.” I would argue that the so-called enshrining is what makes The Breakfast Club so effective: it gives weight to those “banal longings”—which aren’t really any more banal than the longings adults have in more quote-unquote serious pictures. But the comment about blaming adults for the kids’ misery, that part is true. There’s no way around it: With that opening title card that quotes the line from David Bowie’s “Changes” about children being spit on, and John Bender (Judd Nelson) asserting that anyone who says they get along with their parents is a liar, and Allison (Ally Sheedy) declaring in her memeable-before-there-were-memes way, “When you grow up, your heart dies,” The Breakfast Club often plays like a manifesto against moms, dads, and authority figures who have the audacity to underestimate and/or condescend to kids.
But let’s look more closely at those parents. We don’t really get to know them; the movie introduces some of them, briefly, during detention drop-off, but mostly, the parents in The Breakfast Club exist to provide a window into the psyches of our brain, basket-case, athlete, princess, and criminal. Aside from Brian’s high-strung mom, there’s the BMW-driving dad who reminds Claire (Molly Ringwald) that “ditching class to go shopping doesn’t make you a defective.” His bemused response to Claire’s complaint that he couldn’t get her out of detention suggests that she, too, uses her father when it suits her, much the same way, as she later explains, her parents use her to get back at each other. He comes across as distant, but not necessarily a bad guy.
Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez), on the other hand, seems to have a gruff, cliché coach-dad. As for Allison—who hides so effectively beneath baggy black clothes and a mop of hair that no one even notices she’s there—she’s deposited at school by parents whom the audience, appropriately, never sees. And Bender just waltzes in alone, presumably without his parents noticing or caring that he’s gone. Are all of these parents, or the absence of them, stereotypes? Yes. But that’s by design.
In his film-ending letter to Mr. Vernon, on behalf of the breakfast club, Brian accuses the principal of seeing the group “as you want to see us, in the simplest terms, the most convenient definitions.” By presenting the parents the way he does, John Hughes also suggests that teenagers see their parents in the simplest terms and based on the most convenient definitions, too. The movie does not dig more deeply beneath the surfaces of the people sitting in those drivers’ seats because the movie is pointedly not about them. It’s about the kids, and how they see the world. At that age, teenagers often do blame their parents for all the things they can’t do, or that aren’t working out as planned. Hughes isn’t necessarily saying that’s right. We only thought that’s what he was saying if we first watched this movie when we were preteens or teenagers, too, or adults sensitive to the resentment radiating at us from our own preteens and teenagers.
Which brings me to Carl the janitor (John Kapelos) and Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason), detention-dictator of Shermer High School. These are the two adults The Breakfast Club actually does let the audience get to know, and both of them serve as a testament to the way high-school experiences mold the soul.
One of the images in the Shermer High School montage that opens the film reveals that Carl is not only a Shermer alumnus, he was voted man of the year in 1969—appropriate, as the year marking the end of the defining decade of the Boomer experience. Fifteen years later, Carl is the school janitor, or to put it in Bender’s terms, a man pursuing a career in the custodial arts. He’s the definition of a guy who peaked in high school, living proof that, for better or worse, it’s possible to shake the role in which 11th grade casts you.
Yet what’s fascinating about Kapelos’ portrayal of Carl is that he still sees himself as playing the role. Carl, in his mind, is still a big man on campus. “I am the eyes and ears of this institution, my friends,” he proudly announces to the detention audience of five. Working as a janitor at his old high school may seem, to some, like the lowest of possible lows. But the work lets Carl stay in his comfort zone, spending every day in the place that made him feel most powerful, even if his power has been reduced to picking up trash. It’s notable that the two people who seem to have the most kinship with Carl are Bender—an outsider who digs Carl’s smart-ass attitude (“By the way, that clock’s 20 minutes fast”)—and Brian, a different sort of outsider who appreciates Carl’s friendliness. (On my most recent Breakfast Club viewing, I wondered, for the first time: Was it Carl that first discovered the flare gun that went off in Brian’s locker? Was he the one who reported Brian to Vernon? Did he maybe even talk to Brian about what happened beforehand, prompting Carl to ask that heartfelt “How’re you doin’?” when he sees Brian in the library?) There’s a reason Carl was voted man of the year; then, as now, he must have been pretty deft at being liked by everyone, from delinquents to physics-club members. Carl is the one adult in the movie who seems really comfortable with who he is, and who really gets the kids. As they leave Shermer at the end of the day, detention served, they seem to realize that. Their identification with him flies in the face of Kael’s assertion that Hughes’ young people will forever blame the grown-ups for their problems.
Vernon is a more difficult figure. He’s basically an asshole who deserves to be fired, and probably would be if he were still working at Shermer in the more vigilant present. He pokes into private personnel files when he shouldn’t. He threatens to crack student skulls while false bravado shoots out of his Barry Manilow lapels. And he almost breaks Bender when he throws him into supply-closet solitary, threatening him (“I’ll knock your dick in the dirt”) and begging the kid to sock him in the jaw, which would make real trouble. Vernon’s behavior is reprehensible, and the movie never explains why, though looking at it now, I have to assume that maybe Vernon was similarly abused at some point.
The movie does show that Dick—excuse me, Rich—is an extraordinarily insecure guy. There’s a telling moment after Vernon’s showdown with Bender (“For two months, I gotcha”) when Vernon leaves the library and Bender shouts, “Fuck you!” Hughes cuts to Paul Gleason as Vernon, who clearly hears the insult. He looks deeply stricken. His feelings are hurt because deep down, he wants those kids to like him.
“You think I give one rat’s ass what these kids think of me?” Vernon asks Carl as they share cans of beer in the basement while the detention-servers are upstairs in the library, getting high. (The grown-ups cope almost the same way the kids cope: another signal in the script that the divide between adult and teenager isn’t nearly as wide as it seems.) “Yes, I do,” Carl says, and he’s right. It bugs Vernon that the kids think he’s “a joke.” He wants to be admired, the same way the five students who pour their hearts out to each other in the library do. “These kids—when you get old, when I get old—they’re going to be running the country,” Vernon continues. “Now this is the thought that wakes me up in the middle of the night. That when I get older, these kids are going to take care of me.”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Carl cracks. Those wry words express what Vernon—and again, Claire, Brian, Andrew, Allison, and Bender—fear most: that no one cares about them, and that no one ever will. Understanding how much Vernon’s concerns align with the concerns of the so-called “smug little pricks” he oversees doesn’t excuse his behavior, or even redeem him. But it does suggest that one of the reasons he’s so at odds with his students is because he’s an adult trapped in a teenage mentality. He’s immature, cocky, incapable of showing compassion to people different from himself. By virtue of their work, neither he nor Carl ever got out of high school. But only one of them still remembers what it feels like to be young, and he’s the one who has half a prayer of connecting to the generation behind him.
When I was 12, and saw The Breakfast Club for the first time, I didn’t pick up on any of this. I relished in every anti-parental, screw-the-man sentiment embedded in its contained, confessional story, in part because I had to fight my parents to even see it. I was in seventh grade when The Breakfast Club came out. That year, for me, was fraught with far more angst and concern about fitting in than any moment I later experienced in high school. By the time my peers and I reached ninth grade, everybody seemed to calm down and settle more comfortably into their social circles, which were far more porous than The Breakfast Club and other teen movies suggest.
In intermediate or middle school, though, such enlightenment did not yet exist. I felt inferior, belittled on a daily basis, and in constant dread of pre-P.E. locker-room embarrassment and the potential for “Kick Me” signs getting slapped on my back during seventh-period Home Ec. When I saw the commercials for The Breakfast Club—which starred my Sixteen Candles obsessions, Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall, and featured that rad Simple Minds song—I was determined to see it. My parents weren’t so jazzed about that idea. They had let me see one or two R-rated movies on video, including, in a great credit to their parenting, This Is Spinal Tap. But seeing one in the theater—one they may have believed, to borrow a line from another John Hughes favorite, would give good kids bad ideas—was another story.
Still, I begged, cajoled, and campaigned for weeks, until one day I finally wore my mom down. We were in the car, on the way to the movie theater at nearby White Flint Mall, when I made a smart-ass remark in response to something my mom said. She threatened to turn the car around and not take me. Oh, parents always say that, I thought. She won’t actually do it. So I made another smart-alecky comment.
So she turned the car around and didn’t take me. I was devastated, but even more, in keeping with my usual emotional temperature at that age, I was utterly outraged. It was like setting up a place at Woodstock and then deciding to leave before Richie Havens started playing, or opting to switch off the TV at midnight on August 1, 1981 before getting to see the live launch of MTV. The Breakfast Club felt like an important cultural moment that I needed to experience while it was happening. I didn’t stop to think about how my actions had actually prevented me from doing that, or why my mother might have legitimate concerns about whether I was mature enough to handle its themes. Teenagers and preteens, as The Breakfast Club makes clear, don’t think about those things.
Anyway: I obviously did see it, eventually. In the waning days of its theatrical run, when “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” was Billboard’s No. 1 song, I watched The Breakfast Club for the first time. My dad took me, and when Bender pumped his fist at the very end, in an act of defiance, it felt like an exclamation of my own personal victory: I had finally gotten to see this movie. And I loved it.
Afterward, my father asked me all kinds of questions about how I felt about the film, but I didn’t say much. I wasn’t into talking to my parents at that age. I do remember answering one question, though. “Which character did you relate to the most?” he wanted to know. “Brian,” I answered, without elaborating further.
My dad, who, like my mother, is no longer alive, was trying to use the opportunity to connect with me. I didn’t see it then. I couldn’t. I was a kid.
The kids in The Breakfast Club can’t see any sign that their parents are trying, either. But I think the movie actually does tell us that it’s possible, at some point, for young men and women to move past their “most convenient definitions” of the grown-ups in their lives, and truly try to understand them. The movie’s main and most important mission is to show how teenagers can forge connections with each other. But its subtext suggests that the adults want those connection just as much, and that sometimes, generational divides can be bridged.
For proof, just look closely when Brian gets in the car at the end of The Breakfast Club, after his detention has been served and he’s written his essay announcing who he thinks he is. It isn’t his mom this time, it’s his dad. And his dad is played by John Hughes.