Back to School #39: The Breakfast Club (dir by John Hughes)


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Dear Mr Vernon,

We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us – in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. 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.

Does that answer your question?

Sincerely yours,

The Breakfast Club.

— Brian’s essay from The Breakfast Club (1985)

 That’s one thing that has always bothered me about The Breakfast Club.  The film, of course, is famous for being about five different high school students who are forced to spend a Saturday in detention with each other.  Over the course of the day, they start off as antagonists, separated by their own preconceived notions of who they are.  But, as the day progresses, they talk and they bond and they discover that they all have more in common than they might think.  And, at the end of the film, “basket case” Allison (Ally Sheedy) pairs off with “athlete” Andy (Emilio Estevez) and “criminal” Bender (Judd Nelson) pairs off with “princess” Claire (Molly Ringwald).  And while Claire is busy giving Allison a makeover and Bender is thinking about how iconic he’ll look when he raises his fist while leaving the school, “brain” Brian gets to write everyone’s essay.

Originally, all five of them were supposed to spend their time in detention writing individual essays about how they’re going to be better students and citizens.  But, in the end, only one essay is turned in and Brian is the one who writes it.  It’s always seemed a bit unfair to me that, while everyone else was getting to reveal a new side of his or herself, Brian was basically doing everyone’s schoolwork.  I know it can be argued that this shows that the other students finally appreciate Brian’s intelligence but everyone already knew he was smart.  In the end, Brian is the one who articulated what they all discovered during that Saturday detention but he also seems to be the one who gained the least from the experience.

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But, at heart, The Breakfast Club is a deeply ambiguous movie.  That’s one reason why, despite the fact that it was initially released the same year that I was born, the film still feels relevant today and why it remains one of the most popular high school films ever made.  Everyone can relate to at least one of the five students and I imagine that when most people watch it, they wonder how they would react to an aggressive character like John Bender or how they would handle the horrific story that Andy tells when asked what he did to get sentenced to detention.  And, at the end of the film, everyone wonders if any of the new friendships and relationships would actually last longer than a weekend.  When Bender asks Claire how she’s going to act if Brian approaches her on Monday, we all know what will probably actually happen if he does.  At the end of the film, you’re happy that they got that Saturday together because you know that, once Monday comes, it’s going to be like it never happened.

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I’ve watched The Breakfast Club a handful of times.  Whether I relate the most to Claire or to Allison usually depends on my mood. I think that a lot of people want to relate to Allison because, for much of the movie, Claire is unapologetically selfish and spoiled.  But, if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we’re all a lot more like Claire than any of us want to admit.

It’s also easy to relate to Allison because she’s not really a very well-drawn character.  While the other characters all come from an easily identifiable group, Allison is just there.  She’s a collection of strange quirks that don’t always have a clear motivation and, in the end, the only reason Allison works as a character is because Sheedy does such a good job playing her.  At the end of the film, Claire gives Allison a makeover and I have to admit that it always kind of breaks my heart to see how Allison goes from being strange to being very conventional.

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(In Susannah Gora’s excellent book You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried, Sheedy is quoted as saying that she didn’t feel very happy about it either.  According to her — and she’s correct — the only thing that really redeems this scene is the fact that Allison doesn’t quite pull off her new look.  She’s still a little awkward and you realize that she may have just been humoring Claire.)

As for the males, Anthony Michael Hall gets a lot of the laughs and Judd Nelson gets the best lines but Emilio Estevez gives the best performance.  We already know that Brian is insecure despite being intelligent and we expect that Bender is angry because he’s got an abusive father.  But when Andy explains why he, an otherwise nice and likable guy, committed a horrific act of bullying, it’s an amazing scene and Estevez plays it perfectly.

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In fact,  both Estevez and Sheedy are so good that I’ve decided that Andy and Allison did stay together after detention.  Eventually they got married and, right now, they’re living in a pretty house in the suburbs of Chicago.  Bender and Claire, however — there’s no way that lasted!

But, regardless of what happened on Monday, there’s no way your heart can’t soar a little when Bender lifts that fist above his head.

Bender and his fist

Back to School #38: Cavegirl (dir by David Oliver)


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Believe it or not, Back to the Future was not the only film released in 1985 that dealt with a high school senior taking a trip through time and ending up in the distant past.  There was also Cavegirl, which tells the story of Rex (Daniel Roebuck), a nerdy science student who, during a field trip, finds himself transported back to prehistoric times.  It’s there that he meets the title character, the cheerful and friendly Eba (Cindy Ann Thompson).  Eba likes Rex and Rex like Eba.  The only problem is that Eba can’t speak a word of English and Rex can’t get a moment along with her without being interrupted by various cavemen.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this film was distributed by Crown International Pictures.

CIP_LogoOne thing that I always find interesting about the various high school films that were released by Crown International is that the schools always look so ugly.  That’s certainly the case in Cavegirl.  It’s not just that the school’s lay-out is boring.  (Apparently, nobody put much effort into designing high schools in the 70s and 80s.)  It’s just that the school itself looks dirty, as if all of the custodians are on strike.  When, at the beginning of the film, you see Rex walking through the school, you just know that the entire building probably reeks of stale air, rotting food, and decaying rodents.  (In fact, it looks like it might be the same school from The Pom Pom Girls.)  No wonder Rex doesn’t seem to mind being sent into the past!

And speaking of Rex, he’s played by Daniel Roebuck.  Roebuck actually gives a pretty good performance in this film, bringing a lot of conviction to some incredibly silly lines.  But the best thing about seeing Daniel Roebuck in this film is know that, decades later, he would play the ill-fated Leslie Arzt on Lost.  Arzt only appeared in a handful of episodes but every time he did appear, he was whining about something and petulantly demanding to be included in whatever the main characters were doing.  When they finally did allow Arzt to tag along with them, he mishandled some dynamite and blew up.  (Leading to the classic line: “You’ve got some Arzt on you…”)  Arzt may have only been created so that the creators could blow him up but Roebuck gave such a memorably fussy performance in the role that, even after exploding, he retained a following among the show’s many fans.  In Cavegirl, Roebuck gives a similarly fussy performance and, as a result, the entire film feels like it could be called “Leslie Arzt: The Early Years.”

As for Cavegirl itself, it’s definitely a crude film, in both execution and much of the content.  There’s about as much humor based on bodily fuctions as you expect to see in a film like this and there were a few such scenes that I choose to look away from until they were over with.  But, at the same time, it’s ultimately a surprisingly likable film.  That’s largely due to Daniel Roebuck and Cindy Thompson.  They both have a very likable chemistry and Thompson gives such an enthusiastic performance that you can forgive a lot of the film’s weaker moments.

Is Cavegirl as good as Back to the Future?

Well, no.

But, as far as low-budget 80s teen comedies are concerned, it works.

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