SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed!The Breakfast Club (1985) is a study in group dynamics among high school students that focuses on how others, including adults and peers, stereotype individuals. The story demonstrates that although it is comforting to find a secure place to exist, it’s also possible to transcend limited viewpoints. The film is witty, irreverent, and touching, quite an accomplishment for writer/director John Hughes.
The opening sequence contains the hit song “Don’t You Forget About Me,” which stresses the desire of these youths to not just go gentle into that good night. There is a quote shown from rocker David Bowie’s “Changes” that also emphasizes the need for individuality. The lines are followed by glass breaking the camera image, as if to stress the iconoclastic need to destroy being placed in prefabricated molds.Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall) narrates a letter addressed to Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason), the disciplinary principal that he writes at the end of this detention on Saturday morning in 1984. The assignment from Vernon was to state who they are. Brian says that Vernon pigeon-holed them “in the simplest terms” as “a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.” He admits that is how they even saw themselves, because they were “brainwashed.” As he speaks, we see a destroyed locker. It is Brian’s, and we later learn why it exploded. There are also scribblings displayed that repeat the word “Help!” in a notebook. The movie implies that the plea pretty much sums up the feelings of alienation of adolescent youth.
Claire (Molly Ringwald) arrives in a BMW. IMDb notes how the students come to detention is meaningful. Claire and Allison (Ally Sheedy) ride up in expensive cars, showing their affluent backgrounds. We don’t see Allison’s parents, and the car drives away making it appear as if she is an abandoned child. Brian and Andrew pull up in middle-class vehicles, which hints at the possibility that the parents hope their boys will one day move up in the world. John Bender (Judd Nelson) walks to school, indicating that he is at the bottom of the social hierarchy here with no caring parents, and which may suggest why he shows the most anger being the outcast. (His last name suggests he is someone who “bends” the rules imposed on him).
Claire, feeling privileged, wonders why her father couldn’t use his influence to get her out of the punishment. Brian’s mother orders him to find a way to study during the detention, piling on the pressure to succeed. Andrew’s father tells him that he will not get an athletic scholarship if he becomes “a discipline case,” but doesn’t offer an ethical model, since he says his son’s mistake was getting caught, not doing something wrong. The most enigmatic character is Allison, who not only arrives in a Cadillac, but also wears an expensive coat under which she has clothes that make her look like a homeless person. Definitely a person of at least two minds. Her car almost hits Bender who is oblivious to the danger as he walks in front of it, not caring about what others do or think, or what happens to himself. He may be self-destructive, which we learn derives from his home experiences.
Vernon comes in and has nothing but contempt for the young people, which, of course, just leads to feelings of resentment and intimidation on their part. Vernon requires them not to move from their seats or talk for nine hours, ridiculous demands. It is here that he tells them to write the essay about who they think they are. Bender goes out of his way to be gross by spitting and catching his own spit as it falls back into his mouth. He is against anything that is socially acceptable. But if he is anti-social, why does he do things that draw the scrutiny of others? Does it show the need for attention that he has not received? It is interesting that he wears layers of clothing. Is it symbolic of armor, the desire to protect himself from the pain he has endured? (Gene Hackman’s character in the movie Scarecrow did something similar). In fact, there is shedding of outer garments by others which symbolizes removing emotional shielding as the story unfolds.Allison is the real loner. She starts making loud noises as she bites her nails, but she doesn’t do it to draw attention. She is used to being alone. Bender says wittily to her, “You keep eating your hand you’re not going to be hungry for lunch.” Her nonverbal, primal response is to spit a fingernail at him.
Bender continues to be outrageous to shock others, his way of interacting. He acts like he has to pee and pretends he will urinate in the library. He then says they should close the door and, “We’ll get the prom queen impregnated,” a reference to Claire. Lines like that make it difficult at times to feel compassion for his character. (Molly Ringwald has spoken out that she felt upset about these references to implied rape). Andrew shows the proper amount of outrage at Bender’s statement and threatens him. He says that Bender is a nobody and would never even be missed. Bender’s face shows how upsetting that thought is. Claire tells Andrew to ignore Bender, to which Bender says, “You couldn’t ignore me if you tried.” It is a response that can resonate in different ways. Bender wants to make an impression, even if it is a negative one. But, it also suggests the desire of young people to not be dismissed or ignored, and to want to count for something. According to IMDb, Ringwald said this movie is about, “the universal feeling we all have, especially in high school: that we are all outsiders; we all feel alone; and yet we all want to be accepted.”
The topic of connecting with others continues. Claire says to Bender that no school clubs would take him. He, of course, says he wouldn’t want to be members of any of the organizations because they consist of “assholes.” While they are talking, Brian states that he belongs to different academic clubs which shows he is accepted in certain circles. Allison continues her nonverbal responses by forming a gun with her hand and pretends to shoot the awkward, rambling Brian. Bender asks if Claire attends any of the groups with which Brian is associated, and she scoffs, implying they are only for nerds. Bender criticizes her for being elitist. Bender is also sarcastic toward Andrew for competing in wrestling, saying he wants to be just like Andrew, so he needs to get, “a lobotomy and some tights.”
Bender stops the room door from staying open, instigating the appearance of Vernon, who demands to know who closed the door. Allison’s asocial response is to make squeaking sounds. Bender says a screw must have fallen out of the door. Vernon demands the screw from Bender, who says screws fall out all the time because it’s an “imperfect world.” It’s a funny line, but it also mirrors teenage angst about the world they will inherit. In the face of a common enemy, Vernon, Claire actually backs Bender, asking why he would want to steal a screw. When Vernon asks Andrew to get up to help him keep the door open, Bender mocks attempts by the adult to make things work when he says if they all get up there will be “anarchy.”
Bender continues his sarcastic attacks against Vernon and incurs two months’ worth of detentions. Again, Claire wants to help him out, telling him to stop aggravating Vernon and incurring more punishment. Vernon might actually be right when he tells Bender that he should stop trying to get attention in this negative way. But, IMDb suggests that it’s possible Bender knows that if he is in detention on weekends it’s less time to spend with his abusive father. He may also be acting tough as camouflage so others will not see him as a victim of family trauma.
The students try to amuse themselves individually with juvenile activities, but Allison reveals that she is quite an artist as she sketches a winter scene of a covered bridge in the country. She wears her hair in front of her face, hiding herself from the rest of the world. She uses her own dandruff to create the impression of snow on the drawing, a gross act which offsets her talent and again sets her apart from others.
They finally get around to talking about their parents when Claire says she thinks that her mother and father use her against each other. Allison finally speaks and yells “Ha” as if to question Claire’s take on her family. It is ironic that Claire then tells Allison to “Shut up!” since the girl hasn’t said anything up to then. Bender asks Andrew how he feels about his parents and Andrew sees the Catch-22 in the question for teenagers. He says, “If I say Yes, I’m an idiot, right?” Bender says if he says he gets along with his parents, he’s a “liar.” Bender might want everyone to be like him, deprived of a happy family, which makes him less isolated. The suggestion is that you are a freak if you truly do have a good parental relationship. So, when studious Brian says that his parents’ idea of compassion is “wacko,” Bender tries to invalidate good student Brian’s attempt at joining the anti-parent club by saying to him, “You are a parent’s wet dream.”Bender starts to get very suggestive with Claire, asking her if she ever was sexual with anyone, and claims he knows that she is an uptight virgin. Claire seems embarrassed by the talk, but she also seems a bit envious that she hasn’t had any physical experiences. Andrew again feels he must become the female defender. He gets Bender in a wrestling hold and then tells him not to talk to Claire. Bender says that he is trying to help her. He probably thinks he is attempting to liberate her from social restrictions that have repressed her freedom.Carl (John Kapelos), the janitor, arrives in the library and Bender asks how Andrew might get into the “custodial arts.” (Andrew doesn’t think that’s funny because we already heard his father predict failure for him if he lets up on the path to success). Carl cuts right through Bender’s sarcasm and says that he knows everything that goes on in the school, most likely because others ignore him. So, he knows what they talk about and what’s in their lockers, which creates concern on Bender’s face. Perhaps a stash of controlled substances is in his locker. On his ways out Carl notes that the clock there is twenty minutes fast. A smile of respect appears on Bender’s face as he realizes there is much more to Carl than is on the surface. That realization is at the heart of the theme of this story that explodes stereotypes.The group puts aside their differences and they join together when dealing with a common enemy, which is Vernon. He says it’s lunch time, and they object that they must stay in the room to eat. They at least want milk. Claire says she needs the liquid or she dehydrates. Andrew humorously says, “I’ve seen her dehydrate sir. It’s pretty gross.” Vernon chooses Andrew and Allison to help with the milk retrieval. When asked what she likes to drink, Allison tells Andrew she drinks “tons” of Vodka. In her own way, she likes to shock like Bender. She evades the reason why she is at the detention (we never really find out) and asks Andrew the same question. He evades, too, by talking about his athletic status, and she calls him on his not answering her question. They are not ready to be honest with each other just yet.
Bender, again using sexual outrageousness, tries to open up the buttoned-down Claire and Brian about their sexual experiences. Bender may be trying for honesty, but he also could be looking for weaknesses in others since he feels as if he is always being judged. Brian doesn’t want to admit that he is a virgin and at first lies about his carnal exploits, indicating he didn’t want to talk about them in front of Claire. Bender twists his response to make it seem Brian is indicating he had sex with Claire. Once Brian admits his celibacy, Claire legitimizes the lack of sexual experience and praises Brian for his abstinence. In this way she reverses the usual admiration for males being sexually experienced and, again, undermines a stereotype.Lunch is very funny, as food matches the perceptions of the youths’ positions in the student hierarchy. Claire is eating sushi, Andrew has an abundance of choices to feed his athlete’s diet, and Allison makes a wacky sandwich consisting of Pixie Stix and Cap’n Crunch cereal. Bender points out that Brian has the standard “nutritious” lunch consisting of apple juice, soup, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the crust cut off. He jokingly asks if his mom married “Mr. Rogers,” to which the naïve Brian says, no, “Mr. Johnson.”Bender then gets nasty by imitating what he considers to be the bland, superficial conversation that occurs in Brian’s home. He ends the dialogue with a punch to the imaginary face of one of the family members to show his distaste for the banality of Brian’s conforming family existence. He is narrowly categorizing Brian’s life as others do. When Andrew asks what Bender’s home situation is like, Bender depicts a savage, abusive picture, where his father calls him, “worthless, “stupid,” and a “jerk,” to which his mother adds “ugly,” “lazy,” and “disrespectful.” He then imitates his father punching him. Andrew says Bender made up the scenario to match his reputation. But Bender shows them a cigar burn mark on his forearm that he received for spilling paint. Because he feels he is not understood by the others there, he then withdraws into his alienated state. He climbs up onto the landing to the upper level like an animal and looks caged as he puts his head near the steps.There is a lapse in transition at this point as Bender is now with the others as he leads them out of the library when Vernon leaves his jailer’s post. They go to Bender’s locker in a combined desire to break free of their Saturday prison. Bender retrieves marijuana from his sloppy locker to the outrage of the straight Brian. The quirky Allison steals Bender’s locker lock, which fits in with her outlandish persona. When they hit a dead end getting back to the library, Bender sacrifices himself by singing in the halls and playing basketball in the gym to distract Vernon so the others can get back to the library undetected. He has the least to lose since he is already considered a lost cause and he uses that impression to protect the others.
Back at the library, Vernon reveals that Bender is in detention because he created a false fire alarm. Vernon has a point when he says that it wasn’t a funny act because people rely on the warnings to prevent real catastrophes. He tells the others they shouldn’t find Bender entertaining because in five years Bender will be a total loser. That fear of the future haunts Vernon as we see later. He takes the defiant Bender, who pushes things off desks, out of the library. He brings Bender to a closet and says when he is out of school he will find him and beat him up. Bender is stunned by the violent threat from this so-called model of discipline. Vernon says that nobody will believe Bender over Vernon, who has an upstanding reputation. It is here that the film shows how appearances can be deceiving and thus a person’s dignified façade may hide a monster beneath.Not one to be confined, Bender escapes the closet through a ceiling panel and crashes through another on his way back to the library. Again, the group coalesces when Vernon enters asking about the “ruckus.” Bender hides under Claire’s desk and continues his sexual harassment of her by putting his head between her legs. Bender retrieves his pot from Brian who he used for his unsuspecting appearance. Thus, he used stereotyping as a weapon against itself. Andrew warns Bender against smoking the weed there, but peer pressure exerts itself as Claire, and then the others, follow Bender.
The following sequence shows how they get to know each other. The marijuana removes inhibitions as Brian sports sunglasses, and the result is to make his look cool instead of nerdy. Maybe he really has a cool side hiding underneath the dorky exterior. Andrew does an energized athletic run around the second floor which includes jumping over bookcases and doing cartwheels which relieves him of inner restrictions. He goes into a room and screams and the glass in the door shatters. The image mirrors what we see at the beginning of the film which symbolizes breaking constricting barriers. Bender goes through Claire’s purse, and the act is symbolic of delving below the surface to see what’s hidden from others. Allison burrowed into Brian’s life, and reveals that she has learned Brian’s height, middle name, Social Security number, etc., because she stole his wallet. Andrew finds a bad fake ID in the stolen wallet, and Brian says that he had one made, not to get booze, but to vote. So, his rule-breaking action, which is contrary to his programming, was really in the service of civic responsibility. Brian, like the others, turns out to be a complex individual.Allison wants to join in the unmasking and empties the numerous contents of her bag in front of Brian and Andrew. She says that she carries so much stuff as backup if she needs it. When Brian asks if she is going to live on the streets, she says, “I can run away to the ocean, I can go to the country, I can go to the mountains. I can go to Israel, Africa, Afghanistan.” Her words show her desire to escape the confines of the life dictated for her, which is probably one reason why she acts so unconventionally. Brian asks why she must run away at all, and her response is that her life is “unsatisfying.” Andrew’s take is that all young people have unsatisfying lives or else they would never leave their parents’ homes. He is seeing it as a universal situation for everyone growing up which shows that no matter how different they may seem they share a similar fate. Allison however doesn’t seem to want her uniqueness diminished and responds with hostility before departing. As Brian says, “The girl is an island unto herself.” But Andrew tries to break through Allison’s anger and connect with her. He asks if she has problems. She, probably feeling signaled out as defective, counters by saying he has a problem because he does whatever he is told to do. Andrew senses that Allison, by dumping out her bag’s contents, is reaching out to make a connection. He asks if she has problems with her parents and she seems surprised that he has hit upon what is bothering her. When he asks what they did to her she says they “ignore” her. Her outlandish, isolating persona may be a result of her parents’ rejection.
Vernon and Carl have a conversation after Carl finds Vernon snooping through confidential files. Carl says he will not expose Vernon, but he now has leverage over the man despite his seemingly menial job as a custodian. (IMDb points out that in the opening montage Carl’s picture shows he was “Man of the Year” when he attended the school, showing how the future can sometimes be unfulfilling). Vernon says the kids have turned on him, changed, and it worries him that they will take over the country when they are adults. Carl tries to make him see that all teenagers see adults as adversaries. Carl is probably hoping Vernon will have some understanding about the kids and not aggravate the divide between authority and youth. His argument appears to be that if Vernon doesn’t let up on his animosity, he should not “count” on the youth of today taking care of Vernon when he is older.The students talk about what they would do on a dare, and Allison shocks again by saying she’ll do anything sexual. She says she is a nymphomaniac, and had sex with her psychiatrist, who is married. Claire is disgusted by this admission, and refuses to answer the question about her own sexual history. Allison points out the double sexual standard when she says that if Claire is a virgin, she is considered a prude and if she had sex, she’s defined as a “slut.” Allison implies that the standards that society uses to label people are a “trap.” She says that a girl who acts sexually but does not consummate is considered a “tease.” Andrew then generalizes and says that all girls are teases. His statement shows how society instills its views on its members. The group puts pressure on Claire until she finally shouts out that she never “did it!” Allison now admits that neither has she, and that she is “a compulsive liar.”Claire is outraged how she was manipulated, and calls Allison “bizarre.” Andrew then stresses the theme of the story when he says that they all are bizarre but “some of us are just better at hiding it.” The suggestion is that what we present to others may disguise who we really are. Andrew then admits, with Allison’s prodding, that he can’t think for himself. He was in detention for taping a boy’s “buns together.” It sounds like a youthful prank, but it caused the boy to lose some skin when the tape was removed, and the victim was humiliated. Andrew realizes that he did this act because of his father, who always brags about the wild stuff he did when he was young. He keeps pressuring Andrew to be “number one,” and that Andrew always has to “win.” Andrew grew up with his father dictating that boys don’t show “weakness.” The boy Andrew attacked was skinny and weak, so Andrew practiced what his father preached. He can’t conceive now how to apologize for what he did and says he hates his dad for being his role model. Andrew reveals that he isn’t some dumb jock, but instead is sensitive and insightful below the macho surface. Bender realizes he isn’t the only one there that has suffered parental abuse and shows his kinship now with Andrew when he says, “I think your old man and my old man should get together and go bowling.”
Brian says he must meet high academic standards, but failed shop because he couldn’t make a lamp. He thought he was taking an easy class, saying “dopes” take shop. His condescension angers Bender who says he took shop. Brian may know trigonometry, but Bender points out the fallacy of social bias when he says without lamps there would be no light. He implies workers are needed to turn intellectual theories into reality.After the confessions about individual limitations there is a segue into confidence building. Allison, trying to diffuse the tension between Bender and Brian, says her talent is to eat, brush her teeth and play piano with her feet. Brian boasts that he can cook spaghetti. Bender wants to know Claire’s special talent as he says everyone has something to be proud of. She is embarrassed but proceeds to put a lipstick between her breasts and colors her lips without using her hands.
Instead of laughing along with the others, Bender ridicules Claire for the superficiality of her “talent.” She is hurt and when she says she has feelings just like him, he is outraged by the comparison. He mocks her affluent family and says he was given a carton of cigarettes for Christmas. Andrew then voices a cautionary concern when he says, “My God, are we gonna be like our parents?” Claire, showing how Bender’s attack hit home, answers, “Not me, ever.” Bender’s nod acknowledges that he made an impression on Claire. But Allison says it’s inevitable that they will turn into the adults they despise. She says, “When you grow up, your heart dies.” Her pessimism implies that maturity brings with it the end of youthful sensibility.
Brian says he considers them to be his friends now and wants to know what happens when they see each other in school. He hopes that they will continue the friendship they built (which only could have come about by extracting them from the environment they are used to being in). Claire says that they will go back to their old cliques. The others are upset with Claire for submitting to the dictates of peers and her stating that the others will do the same. She says she hates the way things are but tells Brian that he doesn’t understand the pressure exerted on her. Brian starts to cry when he says that he knows the effects of “pressure,” and shows how he is connected to Claire by his feelings of pressure. He admits that he is at detention because he had a gun in his locker. He admits he contemplated suicide because of the “F” he received. But, it turns out that he had a flare gun and it ignited, setting fire to his locker. They all laugh, including Brian, at the lame action, and get hysterical when Allison says she committed no offenses, but is there because she didn’t have anything better to do.
The group cuts loose as Brian plays rock music and they start to lose their inhibitions as they dance wildly. They decide to let Brian write the answer to Vernon’s assignment about who they are. In this way the group speaks as one, united, a far cry from where they were at the beginning of the movie. Claire gives Allison a makeover pushing her hair away from her face and applying make-up. Allison asks why is Claire being nice to her, and Claire says, “’Cause you’re letting me.” It is a meaningful statement. Once Allison allows someone to approach her, lets her defenses down, she can receive friendship, something she previously denied experiencing. Claire’s statement also shows that the attention is not forced upon Allison, who makes the decision to accept a connection. The new look catches Andrew attention. (Ally Sheedy didn’t like the message the makeover sent which is that the girl had to change to get the guy. One could say her character accepted the dictates of what a boy should find attractive which would be contrary to the theme of not going along with conformity. Or, it could be that what she looked like before was the costume, and the transformation brings out that part of her that was lurking behind the surface).Bender sneaks back into the closet where he was supposed to have remained. Claire surprises him and kisses him. One can argue that he brought down her resistance to someone from his social class and liberated her. However, one could object that he shouldn’t be rewarded for being nasty and a sexual bully.
When they leave the school, Allison and Andrew kiss goodbye and she takes a patch off his jacket as a token of their connection. The same happens between Bender and Claire. She gives him one of her earrings (in front of her father, which is courageous) and he wears it in one of his piercings. Brian narrates what we heard at the beginning which is a repudiation of the roles assigned to them by others. Brian says they discovered their complexity, that each of them is a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. The essay from the Breakfast Club is a declaration of youthful independence, which visually is echoed by Bender’s raised fist as he walks on by.
The next film is Night and the City.