This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback series
– By Sam Hendrian –
“When you grow up, your heart dies.” So goes the haunting statement made by high schooler Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) to her fellow detention inmates towards the end of John Hughes’s popular film The Breakfast Club (1985). While such a bold statement may seem unfairly cynical, it undeniably captures how many young people feel about the prospect of growing older and the personalities of the adults in their own lives. Along with Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald), John Bender (Judd Nelson), Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall), and Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez), Allison spends her Saturday detention sentence reflecting bitterly on her hell-like home life and hoping beyond hope to discover within herself the key to a happy life. While a significantly flawed film, The Breakfast Club adequately paints a relatable picture of youthful restlessness and hints poignantly at the desire of many young people to escape the enslaving mediocrity they were born into.
As the film opens, Allison, Claire, John, Brian, and Andrew seem to have absolutely nothing in common with each other. Sentenced to Saturday detention for various reasons, none of them are paragons of teenage virtue, but this commonality is not enough to stop them from initially getting at each other’s throats. John in particular is quite antagonistic, verbally abusing each of his fellow “inmates” and wasting no time in baring his tortured, anger-ridden soul for them all to see. It is almost as if he wants to be there, masochistically (if you can call it that) egging on the slimy detention supervisor Mr. Vernon (Paul Gleason) into giving him eight more consecutive Saturday sentences. As the film progresses and we come to know John a bit better, it actually becomes quite understandable why he would want to be hanging out in detention. His parents are abusive verbally and physically, and the hell of home is far worse than the mere purgatory of detention.
Like John, Allison is also using detention as a refuge from her home, except the abuse she receives there is neither verbal nor physical. Rather, Allison’s parents abuse her with that instrument of torture called indifference, a sadistic weapon that pierces the flesh of her heart and causes her to bleed the blood of self-loathing. After all, if the people who brought her unto this Earth don’t give a damn about her, why should she? Allison finds a masochistic comfort in hating herself and barely saying a word, but the appeal of this twisted comfort lessens as the movie progresses and her desire to be loved and understood by her peers triumphs all.
Out of all the students in detention, the wrestling athlete Andrew is perhaps the most aware of himself and his flaws as a human being. The son of a demanding, largely heartless father and probably sycophantic mother, he has not acquired the ability to truly make decisions for himself, and he knows it. He is in detention for cruelly torturing a scrawny student in the gym locker room, an act he deeply regrets and admits was entirely motivated by his desire to please his socially Darwinistic father. Forced to wrestle competitively and be the strongest kid on the team, he poignantly admits, “You know, sometimes I wish my knee would give, and I wouldn’t be able to wrestle anymore. And [my dad] could forget all about me.”
The token nerd in the group (the movie purposefully relies on stereotypes), Brian is similar to Andrew in that he acts as a slave to his parents’ expectations, only this slavery is in the academic world, not the athletic one. His fear-based obsession with achieving good grades is so strong that when he humiliatingly fails a project in one of his classes, he brings a flare gun to school with the loose intention of despairingly shooting himself (the gun ends up going off in his locker, hence the reason for his detention sentence). Brian receives no love from his parents, only shame and disappointment, so when he discovers that his detention buddies are actually willing to listen to him and show him something that at least resembles genuine compassion, his tortured soul is flooded with a bright hope that it has never experienced before.
The “princess” character of Claire exemplifies compassion the most out of all the teenage characters, although she herself is just as emotionally lost and discouraged. She demonstrates an almost motherly attentiveness to Brian in particular when he is baring his soul, and she never lashes out at any of the other students except in self-defense. Like Allison, her home life is largely characterized by torture via indifference and ignorance. As she heart-wrenchingly says, “I don’t think either one of [my parents] gives a shit about me. It’s like they use me just to get back at each other.” She is admirably determined to be far more caring than her parents, and it is this determination that fuels her maternal concern for the equally-tortured souls of Brian, Allison, Andrew, and John.
Perhaps the most universally relateable characteristic of these five struggling souls is their mutual restlessness and desire to live happy, purpose-filled lives that transcend the seeming heartlessness and mediocrity of their parents. The scenes in which they recklessly partake in some marijuana and goofily dance around the library succinctly symbolize this rampant restlessness, a restlessness they hope to satisfy by eventually moving out of their homes and finally living the independent lives they have long dreamed of living. As Andrew keenly observes, “Everyone’s home life is unsatisfying. If it wasn’t, people would live with their parents forever.” Thus dissatisfaction can be a natural and healthy force of nature that moves people of all ages towards fulfilling their greater destinies in life.
While each character in The Breakfast Club has dreadfully dismal parents by all standards of decency, it should of course be noted that there do exist many good sets of parents in real life. This does not mean that kids with good parents should not still be restless and dissatisfied to an extent; I myself have a wonderful family but cannot stand staying at home for too long. Spirited independence is a gift, and as long as we steadfastly honor our parents and cooperate with the moral guidance that God offers to each and every one of us in the depths of our hearts, this spirited independence can lead to a unique and fulfilling life.
Beyond restlessness, The Breakfast Club is ultimately a film about the ever-important need to listen to and not just hear one another. Detention turns out to be a blessing-in-disguise for Allison, John, Brian, Andrew, and Claire, for it is there that they are each given the opportunity not only to be listened to, but also to listen themselves and so begin to learn how to love. While they may not entirely know it by the time the film ends, it is love, real love that each of these troubled teenagers seeks, a love that can be partially received from each other but that can only come completely and perfectly from God. Sadly, none of them have any evident faith in their All-Loving Creator, but by taking the time to listen to each other, at least they learn one crucial Christian lesson: it is in consoling that we are consoled.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.