Movies You Gotta See: Why ‘The Breakfast Club’ might be the most enduring ‘80s movie

By Jalen Maki

We’ve all been asked this question before: “What’s your favorite ‘80s movie?”

I believe there’s a distinction between an “‘80s movie” and “a movie that was released between 1980 and 1989.” In taking a look back, the list of films I’d consider as being among my favorites of the decade ended up being longer than I expected. The Shining, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Stand By Me, Back to the Future, Airplane!, Dead Poets Society, The Terminator, When Harry Met Sally…, Top Gun, Aliens, Do the Right Thing, Predator, The Goonies… the ‘80s were pretty stacked!

Even though all of those films came out in the 1980s, I wouldn’t necessarily consider them ‘80s movies. Why not? Because, to me, the defining characteristic of a true ‘80s movie is the involvement of John Hughes.

I mentioned this in a column I wrote about Fargo last year, in talking about Midwestern movies: John Hughes’ run from the mid-‘80s through the early ‘90s is bananas. In this time, Hughes hammered out banger after banger, with several of them being definitive movies of the decade: Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and, my favorite of them all, and the one that might outlast the rest in both pop culture and the collective consciousness: 1985’s The Breakfast Club.

To set the scene: It’s March 24, 1984. Shermer High School. Shermer, Illinois. Five students, for various reasons, are forced to serve a day-long Saturday detention in the library.

On the surface, these characters couldn’t be less alike. You have five pretty standard high school archetypes: the brainiac, Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall); the athlete, Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez); the quiet weird girl, Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy); the Prom Queen, Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald); and the rebellious hoodlum, John Bender (Judd Nelson).

I’m not sure if the average high school’s social structure is quite as rigidly defined as The Breakfast Club wants us to believe, but the film does a masterful job in telling us everything we need to know about these characters within a few minutes of meeting them. Well, as we come to find out, not everything – in fact, very little, and that’s the brilliance of the movie.

When they walk into the library, the characters silently try to figure out where the others stand socially. Andrew identifies Claire as someone from the same side of the tracks and sits at her table. Brian sits behind Claire and Andrew at first, but immediately and without protest moves to the table to his left because John wants his spot, and Allison sits in the back. From the jump, they’re separated by social class.

Enter Vice Principal Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason). Vernon runs his detentions like the Navy, and he makes it clear right away that he won’t tolerate any tom foolery. He tells the students that they can’t leave their seats, and to make sure they do something productive with their time, he gives them an assignment: They must each write a 1,000-word essay on “who they think they are.”

Throughout the day, the students size each other up and butt heads, and through arguments and heart-to-hearts, they find out that despite their differences in upbringings and cliques, they all have more in common than they ever imagined.  

A genius way Hughes demonstrates the characters’ superficial dissimilarities is through their lunches. Claire has sushi, which is a pretty bougie lunch for a high schooler. Andrew’s pulling sandwiches and milk and cookies and an assortment of other items out of what might be a bottomless brown paper bag, but the guy’s a wrestler, so he needs the calories. All of the food groups are represented in Brian’s lunch, a fact John’s quick to mockingly point out. Allison has the lunch of a child left to their own devices – pure sugar. I mean, who among us hasn’t washed down the occasional Pixie Stick and Captain Crunch sandwich with a crisp can of Coke? And John doesn’t have lunch at all. The meals act as a representation of each character’s home life, or at least, how it’s perceived from the outside: high-class, goal-driven, sensible, manic, neglectful.

What makes the movie work is that each character gets their time in the limelight and under the microscope, and in learning about each other, they learn about themselves. We find out about Claire’s parents’ bad marriage; the toxic relationship Andrew has with his dad; the unbearable academic pressure Brian faces on the home front; Allison’s empty, unsatisfying home life; and the physical, verbal, and emotional abuse John is subjected to on a daily basis. Heck, we even pull the curtain back on why Vernon’s such a contemptible jerk all the time.

Years from now, I think The Breakfast Club could very well be the most enduring of Hughes’ ‘80s movies because even adults can glean a thing or two from its surprisingly blunt and earnest exploration of high school-aged people’s emotional complexities. Sure, the music and fashion have aged, but the film’s message is timeless. No one is only who they appear to be; everyone is more  complicated and nuanced than meets the eye, with unique yet relatable problems, anxieties, and fears.

In the social framework of the teenage years, it might just be easier to morph yourself into who you think others want you to be in order to be accepted, rather than to live authentically and risk rejection. At 7 a.m., this was a bleak reality that the characters had accepted, but by that afternoon, they were ready to reject it altogether.

Each character wants to be loved and embraced for who they really are, even if they’re still figuring out who that is. For these characters, it took a day in detention with strangers to realize they actually have agency in the process of self-discovery, and, that in order for others to achieve the same acceptance they’re seeking, they themselves have to play an active part in it.

The end of the movie is a 450-foot home run, with the characters bucking Vernon by leaving behind a single letter instead of writing five separate essays.

“You see us as you want to see us – in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions,” Brian writes on behalf of the group. “But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.”

Were the characters all still friends on Monday? This is a question asked and answered with brutal honestly in the movie. But whether or not they were, there was bravery in their vulnerability; there was wisdom in knowing that their social structure was an illusion; and there was virtue in shattering it.

Jalen’s columns, “Movies You Gotta See” and “The Free Play,” can be found online at

Follow Jalen on Letterboxd at to see what he’s been watching.

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