As John Bender raises his arm in triumph to the concluding beats of Simple Minds’ Don’t You (Forget About Me), a generation was floored, and the resounding shock waves of the film’s unprecedented notion of truth reverberated across the decades in the legacy it left for all the brains, athletes, basketcases, princesses and criminals of every generation that followed it’s 1985 release.
An undoubted success, the film debuted at #3 at the box office, grossing over $50 million worldwide on a budget of only $1 million. John Hughes was widely praised for capturing and communicating the teenage experience so warmly and humorously, and his movie was soon critically acclaimed and launched into the history books. This legacy is apparent even today, still hailed as one of the most famous and deeply loved 80s films alongside other successes such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and Sixteen Candles (1984). The Breakfast Club, probably by most definitions, shouldn’t be as entertaining as it is. The whole plot is essentially just five characters sitting in a room and talking - so easily it could have slipped into the realm of ‘too experimental’ or simply too boring to hold an audience’s attention. So what makes it so special?
Their secrets are the elephant in the room from the get-go and very gradually we’re allowed in
Personally, I believe the storytelling is so important in answering this question. The movie masterfully takes its time in revealing the stories of each character and what they did to get into detention. For John, his insubordination is obvious, but for the others, it’s interesting that viewers connect to the teens despite the fact that they’re all hiding so much that they’re too afraid to reveal straight away. Their secrets are the elephant in the room from the get-go and very gradually we’re allowed in, watching as their walls are torn down and the most vulnerable parts of themselves are revealed.
The Breakfast Club mainly explores the theme of identity, and how the identities of young people are moulded by everyone but themselves. Remaining touchingly realistic throughout, the group don’t become friends right away. They’re all completely different people who, under normal circumstances, would never exchange a single word. The five characters are thrown headfirst into a situation that forces them to deal with their trauma and personal prejudices by opening up and revealing their issues to people whom they quickly realise are the only ones in their lives who they can truly be themselves around. It’s soon clear to the characters and audiences alike that this isn’t just a movie or detention, it’s a chance at life - a chance to feel less alone.
The isolated and simplistic nature of the film forces the focus to be concentrated solely on the five characters, which is why it’s so fascinating that some of them are so unlikeable. Andy admits to brutally bullying a fellow student to get validation from his father, Claire is consistently self-obsessed and judgmental, and John is relentlessly crude and intimidating, flashing the group his knife the earliest chance he could. But that’s the whole point - they’re aware of their flaws but they can’t change, and they don’t have the opportunity to change, because of the boxes society has put them in.
For any of them to be friends they’d have to fundamentally change everything about their lives and their friendships, and it’s made painfully apparent that none of them are willing to make that sacrifice
In what I believe deserves the acclaim of one of the best scenes in cinema purely for how perfectly it acts as an allegory for the whole movie (and due to the stunning improvisation), Claire points out savagely that when they return to school, none of them could treat each other with the kindness they want to because their social status wouldn’t allow it. For any of them to be friends they’d have to fundamentally change everything about their lives and their friendships, and it’s made painfully apparent that none of them are willing to make that sacrifice.
The end of this scene, with Brian and Allison’s heartbreaking admissions of how they ended up in detention resulting in the group breaking down in laughter, is so important to how this film so accurately portrays the struggles of teenage life. They find their solace not in being able to miraculously save each other, but in finding others who can empathise with their pain and alleviate it with something as simple as friendship. To be able to laugh at something as dark as Brian’s story is what these characters, and what all repressed teenagers, have needed their whole lives - companionship, understanding, and most importantly, relief.