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The adolescent angst of The Breakfast Club still resonates 30 years later

The Breakfast Club turns 30 this year, which means that its stars are now middle-aged. But those five teens on the screen still resonate with more than one generation, as Pitch Perfect showed in 2012 when it referenced the film during a few key plot moments. When The Breakfast Club returned to theaters for a brief run to celebrate its anniversary, it played to both an audience that had grown up with it and to a new generation that could grow to appreciate it. Three decades later, The Breakfast Club still has a lot to offer both of them.

Before John Hughes started his high school canon, youth-oriented movies had a weaker track record. Thirty years before The Breakfast Club (about as far from it as we are now), American teens were enjoying the first emergence of youth culture on a nationwide scale. Adults who distrusted the rising popularity of rock music feared that it would lead to reckless behavior, resulting in juvenile delinquency. For The Breakfast Club’s clearest antecedent, we can point to cinema’s most famous J.D. in Rebel Without A Cause. What is John Bender anyway, but a wise-cracking James Dean? Natalie Wood’s character, popular girl Judy, parallels Claire in The Breakfast Club, with Sal Mineo’s Plato acting as a forebear to Anthony Michael Hall’s Brian and Ally Sheedy’s Allison.

Rebel, like The Breakfast Club, also focuses on vital but unlikely friendships that form over the course of a single day. Dean’s loner character, Jim Stark, starts at a new school, hoping for friends, but instead gets immediately embroiled in knife fights and chickie runs, the adolescent transgressions for which the film is best remembered. What really stands out in Rebel from a wider perspective, though, is the tumultuous relationship between the movie’s parents and their offspring. When Jim and Judy pretend to be a young couple shopping for a house, Jim asks about children, and Judy remarks, “They’re such a bother.” Plato remembers lying in his crib, listening to his parents fight. Jim is embarrassed and let down by his hen-pecked father (Jim Backus), and he erupts at his parents in the film’s climactic scene: “You’re tearing me apart!”

By the late ’60s, youth broke with establishment almost completely, as did youth-aimed movies like Easy Rider. The ’70s brought slasher films and musicals like Grease, but the movie that best focused on the teen years was also a nostalgia piece: George Lucas’ 1973 film American Graffiti. Hughes picked up the Graffiti baton about a decade later for his string of teen films. Sixteen Candles explored high-school social structure. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, rebellion from authority. Pretty In Pink and its gender-switched equivalent, Some Kind Of Wonderful, classism. But only The Breakfast Club condensed all of them into a single film, making it Hughes’ best.

Much is made of the five leads as generic stereotypes: Brain, Beauty, Jock, Rebel, Basket Case. In classic Hughes fashion, the Beauty and Jock are at the top of the high-school structure, the others further down the ladder. But the fact that “custodial artist” Carl is seen in a brief shot at the beginning of the movie as a former high school star is a sly nod to what Hughes thinks of people who peak in high school. (Ferris Bueller is the only Hughes hero who’s popular with his classmates.)

The Breakfast Club systematically breaks down these social barriers, first by pointing out the group’s differences—as seen in their lunches, for instance, which range from sushi to a Cap’n Crunch sandwich—then their similarities. They share social fears. They all acted out their general dissatisfaction to wind up in all-day detention, even Allison, who only wandered in out of boredom. Moments like pot-fueled dancing and examining each other’s wallets help bond the kids together, along with their alignment against out-of-touch principal Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason). The lines from Brian’s letter that close the movie reinforce how pointless and painful stereotypes can be.

But what resonates most from a later viewing of The Breakfast Club, and the main thing these five have in common, is how their parents cast a pall over the entire proceedings. Parents only appear tangentially in Hughes’ other teen movies, with nice-guy dads like Paul Dooley and Harry Dean Stanton sitting in for some heartfelt one-to-ones with Molly Ringwald. In The Breakfast Club, viewers only briefly see the parents dropping the kids off in the morning. But much of what the kids talk about, and what appears to upset them most, is how they deal with their parental units.

Bender’s “‘No, dad, what about you? ‘Fuck you!’” speech is a sharper version of Jim Stark’s plea to his father decades earlier. Claire readily admits that she is the focus of a tug-of-war between her parents, and given the option, she’d rather just live with her brother. In one of Brian’s fumbling attempts to fit in, he says, “Hey, I don’t get along with my parents either,” even though he undoubtedly has the most stable family of anyone there. Still, he feels so compelled to get straight As that he brings a (flare) gun to school when it looks like he may fail shop. Sheedy sells Allison’s isolation when she reveals to Andy that her parents “ignore me,” and the fact that we never see her parents—their car pulls away without anyone saying goodbye to her—underscores her point. Andy’s father pushes him so much into sports that he feels like a prize racehorse: “It’s about how involved I am in what’s happening to me.” At one point, Andy despairs, “My God. Are we going to be like our parents?” Claire tearfully insists, “Not me. Ever.”

Princess or prisoner, nerd or nutjob, these five disparate teens bond over their conviction that they can’t talk to their parents, which leaves them rudderless at a time when they could use that help the most. Their mutual need for support leads them to seek it from each other, societal walls be damned.

Most of Hughes’ films contain some elements that are horrifying from a 21st-century perspective. Sixteen Candles, infamously, has a character that’s nothing more than a racist stereotype (Long Duk Dong), casual acceptance of date rape, and another character whose scoliosis serves as a walking punchline (poor Joan Cusack). In The Breakfast Club, the girls get short shrift: Claire gets mercilessly grilled about her virginity and inexplicably falls for her constant tormenter Bender, while Allison’s makeover just makes her look like a brunette Claire—though her personality remains when she rips the S off Andy’s letter jacket. Some of the dialogue is too melodramatic, even by John Hughes standards: “Your intensity is for shit!” (Andy on his father); “When you grow up, your heart dies” (Allison’s mournful prediction). Still, Hughes’ efforts to focus this movie on the teenage experience, and not much else, ensure that even the young audience of Pitch Perfect can still turn to The Breakfast Club for cultural guidance.

Filmmakers have tried to emulate Hughes since the ’80s, but most mainstream efforts have fallen short, relying on Shakespearean plays (10 Things I Hate About You, She’s The Man), Austen and Hawthorne novels (the excellent Easy A and Clueless), and even fairy tales (Beastly) for inspiration. The sunny and popular High School Musical movies had no basis in reality. Today’s youths are mostly limited to the post-apocalypse (The Hunger Games, Divergent), battling diseases (The Fault In Our Stars, Me And Earl And The Dying Girl), and—just like their ’70s and ’80s forebears—getting attacked in horror films (It Follows, The Cabin In The Woods). In this century, so far, no one has picked up Hughes’ baton.

Seeing The Breakfast Club as a teenager was like getting knocked over by a wave of validation. I remember sitting in the theater, sold from the moment the Bowie quote smashes through the screen, thinking, “Finally, somebody gets it.” I didn’t understand why everything my parents did at the time drove me crazy, but from what I saw on the screen, I was not alone in this alienation.

I recently went to an anniversary screening with friends my age. Most of us cried, especially during the circular confessional scene. We couldn’t believe how this deceptively simple film—shot like a stage play, in an isolated setting, with very little plot—still resonated with us in adulthood. Only now it also hits on another level because we’re parents, and some day our kids will be in high school. Fear struck my heart when Bender told Andy, “You’re an idiot, anyway. But if you say you get along with your parents, well, you’re a liar too.” My kids are probably going to hate me no matter what—which is okay, as Andy later notes, “Otherwise, kids would just stay with their parents forever.” (Well, that kind of happens now too.)

Those issues—parents, class, authority, peer pressure—never leave the teenage experience. The empathetic way The Breakfast Club handles them means the film will resonate with future generations almost as much as it did—and still does—with mine.