Sunday, February 15, 2015

'The Breakfast Club' Was More Than Just a Comedy

Brian (Anthony Michael Hall): Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. But we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us — in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain ...

Andrew (Emilio Estevez): ... and an athlete ...

Allison (Ally Sheedy): ... and a basket case ...

Claire (Molly Ringwald): ... a princess ...

John (Judd Nelson): ... and a criminal ...

Brian: Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.

"The Breakfast Club," which began playing on America's movie screens 30 years ago today, was better than most of the coming–of–age flicks I have seen — and more than just a comedy.

So often, "coming of age" seems to be code for "losing one's virginity" — or trying to lose one's virginity and failing miserably. Excuses for exploiting the young and the beautiful. (That seemed to be especially true of movies of the mid–1980s.)

That really does seem unfortunate to me because there are so many other aspects of the maturation process that do not involve sex — but do involve a voyage of self–discovery. And, to be fair, there have been some movies that have tried to tackle the topic of coming of age from a more cerebral perspective. Some succeeded. Some did not.

"The Breakfast Club" was one of the better ones.

The premise was that five students, each occupying a different rung on the ladder of high school popularity, were brought together to serve a day of detention on a Saturday. They didn't know each other when the day began, but they knew each other pretty well when the day was over.

This was an old tactic, critic Roger Ebert observed, given a new spin. "William Saroyan and Eugene O'Neill have been here before, but they used saloons and drunks. 'The Breakfast Club' uses a high school library and five teenage kids."

OK, it wasn't an original tactic. But the folks who put the movie together managed to attract an audience by casting five of the hottest young stars around at that time — Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy.

Once they had 'em in the theater, they could tell their story.

With nearly all of the action taking place in that high school library, the dialogue became the most important part of the movie. "The Breakfast Club" was like a high school version of the United Nations, with each campus clique represented. Thirty years later, the labels are probably different — language, after all, defines each generation — but the types are universal.

Anyone who ever spent any time in high school is familiar with them. The athlete, the brain, the criminal, the prom queen, the misfit. The cast of "The Breakfast Club" seemed to accept the spots in the high school pecking order to which they had been assigned by life; when the movie began, the characters knew little about each other — and really did not want to know much about each other.

An hour and a half later (by moviegoer's time) they knew all about each other. They had bonded, each in his or her own way but learning in the process the things that they had in common.

The two girls bonded in ways their peers never would have been able to comprehend. The prom queen (Molly Ringwald) was applying makeup to the face of the misfit (Ally Sheedy).

"Why are you being so nice to me?" she asked with the wary suspicion of one who has been humiliated before.

"Because you're letting me," the prom queen replied, and one suspected that, in her experience, things like trust frequently came with strings attached. At the same time, the audience knew that Sheedy didn't trust people easily, that it was a pretty big deal for her to allow Ringwald to be that close.

But girls' agendas are always more complicated than boys'. For the boys in "The Breakfast Club," it was about making the grade. One was driven to get grades that were good enough to merit a full academic scholarship. Another was driven to get grades that were good enough that, combined with athletic skill, would merit an athletic scholarship. The third was driven, simply, to get grades that were good enough to get by.

And, while there has always been and always will be a certain amount of macho posturing in male relationships, the boys managed to get past that on several occasions.

I don't think I ever expected that any of them would win acting awards, but I hoped that the movie might receive some recognition from Oscar. But it did not. That was in keeping, I suppose, with the Academy Awards' general — and long–standing — bias against comedies.

But there were many dramatic moments and dramatic lines in "The Breakfast Club." To dismiss it as a comedy is to do it a disservice.