They were an athlete, a basket case, a princess, a brain and criminal. And 30 years ago (almost to the day), they united a generation simply by spending their Saturday together in detention.
Yesterday marked the fictional anniversary of the day captured in John Hughes’ seminal coming-of-age dramedy, The Breakfast Club. The high schoolers sentenced to confinement by assistant principal Richard "Dick" Vernon (the ideally oily Paul Gleason) started out as strangers, separated by the social boundaries that divide all student bodies in learning institutes across our nation (and around the world). By the end of the day, the impossible had occurred. Those ridiculous barriers – which exist in the insecurities of our conformist personalities – had been torn down, reshaped and repositioned to include all five members of Hughes’ Breakfast Club. Just thinking about it makes me want to pump my fist in the air as I pop my collar and stomp across the nearest football field.
Then I remember a harsh reality that brings me crashing back down to Earth. This movie would never exist today. There’s no place in the modern movie landscape for a film as culturally significant and thematically resonant as The Breakfast Club. Thirty years ago, Hughes’ masterpiece – and I stand behind that adjective when it comes to this film – voiced the concerns, fears, hopes and wishes of a maturing teenage audience. It displayed a tremendous ear for the dialogue used by the same people sitting in the theaters, waiting to see how the movie would resolve. It spoke to a generation.
Hollywood just doesn’t speak that language anymore.
I casually mentioned this in my recent review of Divergent, a movie that comes the closest these days to replicating when a teenager feels like they don’t fit in. And yet, the hero of that piece – Tris (Shailene Woodley) – still must fight for her life in a deadly, post-apocalyptic future that looks like the Junior Varsity version of The Road Warrior. Not to sound like a decrepit relic, but back when I was growing up, we had countless stories aimed at teenaged audiences that addressed our desire to belong, and they didn’t all spew from Hughes’ pen. The Karate Kid found a displaced New Jersey teen trying to fit in among the snobs of Southern California. David Seltzer’s winning Lucas saw a pint-sized Corey Haim going out for the football team to impress new girl Kerri Green. And in Footloose, all Kevin Bacon wanted to do was dance. That hasn't changed.
These days, teen role models like Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) engage in lethal battles to the death for the amusement of a vengeful, spoiled aristocracy. Pretty relatable, right?
That’s the major difference between movies like The Breakfast Club and films that pretend to be aimed at younger audiences in 2014. When we looked up at the screen in 1984, we saw ourselves, whether we were the athlete, the basket case, the princess, the brain or the criminal. Hollywood made more movies about recognizable teenage characters, and audiences responded because we could relate to the problems those kids faced. Certain movies exist as escapism, of course. But the reason we continue to talk about milestone movies like Clueless, Can’t Hardly Wait, Mean Girls or 10 Things I Hate About You is because, in my opinion, they tried to connect using truths we all understood. And too few movies attempt to do that anymore. Whenever we learn about a new YA adaptation meant to appeal to teenagers, it’s required to include some supernatural element, some survival competition in a post-war society, or vampires. Always vampires.
As The Breakfast Club turns 30, I hope that it rekindles a passion among screenwriters, directors and storytellers to speak to younger audiences on a more human level. Movies like The Spectacular Now or The Kings of Summer, which crafted painfully authentic, conflicted teenagers who basically had to resolve complicated emotional issues in 90-minute packages… not tear down fascist dictatorships that torture and kill innocents.
Give younger audiences more stories about characters to which they can identify. Give them universal stories that stand the test of time because they speak to kids no matter the decade, no matter the generation. Thirty years after the "Breakfast Club" bonded in detention, we still cherish the time we got to spend with these five strangers. We remember every step of the journey. Hollywood should remember how important movies like this were, and how important they still need to be today.