The Emotional Legacy of The Breakfast Club

John Hughes’s coming-of-age classic feels dated in retrospect, but the film paved the way for more character-focused teen stories.

The five main characters of 'The Breakfast Club'

When John Singleton—the groundbreaking filmmaker behind movies like Boyz n the Hood, and the first African American to get a Best Director Oscar nomination—first saw The Breakfast Club in 1985, he was reviewing it for his high-school newspaper. “The various characters were teenage archetypes, but they were rooted in genuine human problems,” he later said. “I didn’t feel alienated by the fact that they were all white kids. They were just teens finding their way into adulthood—like I was.”

Six years later, Singleton made Boyz n the Hood, a teen drama about growing up in South Central Los Angeles; he cites the Breakfast Club writer-director John Hughes as a major influence. “He gave me a template,” Singleton has said, according to David Kamp’s essay in the new Criterion Collection release of the movie, which came out this month. Watching Hughes’s foundational tale of adolescent angst more than 30 years on, it’s easy to be put off by the homogeneity and privilege of its main characters: five suburban white kids in Chicago who spend the entire film fretting over their social status, overbearing parents, and existential fears. But The Breakfast Club undeniably laid the foundation for a whole new kind of teen drama—one motivated less by plot, and more by mood.

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.

Still, the emotions being worked through in The Breakfast Club are often uncomfortably raw. Hughes refuses to cut away from his characters when they’re realizing some deeper truth about themselves, even if it’s something as obvious as admitting that being a virgin in high school isn’t the end of the world. The director also captures the mood swings that come with being a teenager: Brian (Hall) talks about suicidal ideation in practically the same breath as he giggles about his own nerdiness. And when Andrew (Estevez) finally feels comfortable enough with talking about himself, he expresses that relief physically, tearing off his shirt and running around the library with glee.

Those are the big triumphs of The Breakfast Club. Nobody’s desperately trying to have sex, make money, pull off some epic prank, or retrieve a crystal egg from a gangster (Risky Business is a wild movie). Its heroes are just kids sitting in a circle and engaging in makeshift therapy.

Near the end of the film, the teacher Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason), the tin-pot dictator keeping watch over detention, complains to the janitor Carl (John Kapelos) about what really frightens him about his students. “When you get old, these kids—when I get old, they’re gonna be running the country,” he says with a sigh. “Now this is the thought that wakes me up in the middle of the night—that when I get older, these kids are gonna take care of me.” This is a panic that perhaps surfaces in every generation, but The Breakfast Club at least tries earnestly to understand what’s motivating the young people Vernon is so afraid of. It’s an idea that would transform the genre.