When Hughes started production on The Breakfast Club in March 1984 with an indie-movie budget of $1 million (about $2.5 million adjusted for inflation), his debut feature Sixteen Candles wouldn’t even hit theaters for another two months. The teen film was, at that point, rooted more in sensationalism, with oversexed comedies like Losin’ It, Porky’s, and Risky Business dominating the genre. Even genuinely great movies like Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High had an emphasis on shock value (that film featured R-rated nudity and a hard-hitting abortion plotline).
Sixteen Candles, a coming-of-age tale about a high-school sophomore (Molly Ringwald) coping with a crush and her chaotic family, was sort of a proto–Breakfast Club, with a simple story driven by deeper characterization. But it’s much more fizzy and action-packed than its successor, rife with slapstick comedy and some very broad, uncomfortable racial humor centered on the exchange-student character of Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe). The Breakfast Club strips most of that excess away, locking five kids—a jock (Emilio Estevez), a nerd (Anthony Michael Hall), a princess (Ringwald), an outcast (Ally Sheedy), and a delinquent (Judd Nelson) in detention together and seeing what happens.
All of the movie’s pathos derives from these characters bumping off one another; the plot twists, such as they are, hinge on the teenagers realizing their surface impressions of each other are wrong. The importance of not judging a book by its cover isn’t exactly a revolutionary lesson. But The Breakfast Club was unique because of how Hughes achieves his story goals: through long, drawn-out conversations that built to teary emotional realizations. The movie is basically a stage play unfolding in a series of close-ups, yet that didn’t stop it from becoming a big box-office hit.
The Breakfast Club made $45 million (adjusted for inflation, that’s $115 million today) and inspired a wave of more angsty films about growing up, including Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful (also written by Hughes), Stand by Me, For Keeps, Dead Poets Society, Say Anything, and School Ties. Even the more arty hits of the early ’90s—like Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and, yes, Boyz n the Hood—feel loosely connected to the character-driven origins of The Breakfast Club. That approach eventually filtered into television, with high-school dramas like Winnie Holzman’s My So-Called Life becoming the standard-bearer for emotionally mature teen storytelling.
Compared to many of the newer works it influenced, The Breakfast Club can feel almost embarrassingly clichéd. John Bender, the aggressive bad boy played by Nelson, is sporting a galaxy-sized chip on his shoulder and seems to exist mostly to prod the other characters out of their shells by bullying them. The richer kids, played by Estevez, Hall, and Ringwald, are largely defined by the pressure that comes with high expectations, an observation that feels trite today. And the film’s final “makeover” of Sheedy’s character from a black-clad pseudo-goth to a preppy-looking Ringwald clone is far less triumphant than the film thinks it is.