Don’t You Forget about Me: Introducing a Teen to the Teen Canon of the 1980s

Movies Features Breakfast Club
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Don’t You Forget about Me: Introducing a Teen to the Teen Canon of the 1980s

I am incredibly lucky. I have two daughters who are not pop culture lemmings. They do not care what the other kids wear, watch or listen to, and they never have. Grace, the 14-year-old, has a retro streak that exceeds even my own (item one on her birthday wish list? A vintage typewriter). A mythology freak with a formidable quiver of sass-arrows, Grace is of a generation with no memory of the world before 9/11. Her “teen films” are things like Twilight (which may be the saddest words I write today). Nonetheless, getting a teenager to be into what her mother is into is probably child abuse at some level, but like I said, she’s different.

When I graduated high school, cinema screens were showing Say Anything…, Dead Poets’ Society, and a frantically nerd-awaited, high-buzz reboot of Batman with Jack Nicholson starring as the Joker. Now, Miss Grace is a Marvel and DC Comics ultrageek, so I thought she might get a kick out of Burton’s 1989 film. I mean, it couldn’t be worse than what Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad had recently put us through. Enduring Will Smith trying to be a bad guy makes me need to adjust my meds, and don’t get me started on the criminal misuse of Viola Davis or the inclusion of that guy who can “climb anything” or, like, Jesse Eisenberg … wha?

Anyway, we took 1989 Batman for a test drive, at the end of which Grace gave me a withering stare and said something along the lines of “The Joker just dies? Just like that? I’m never getting those two hours back.” (She was right.)

I wasn’t really into “teen” movies when I was their target demographic, at least not usually. (I’ve written previously about why Dead Poets’ Society blew and continues to blow my mind.) Basically, I was a fucking snob, and largely disdained Molly Ringwald and Jon Cryer and anyone named “Corey” for … well, for Eraserhead and The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Luis Buñuel and all the Pedro Almodovar films the UC Theater could dish out.

But 25-30 years later, stuff I’d scorned as cinematic bubblegum was starting to seem like something more. The “something more” was probably a maudlin, sentimental urge to return to a time when I didn’t know what “Resting Bitch Face” meant, but whatever—I decided it was time for Grace to be introduced, for good or bad or both, to Mr. John Hughes. And, more specifically, to The Breakfast Club.

Join the Club
Honestly, I didn’t have high hopes. 1980s pacing is slow by today’s standards. “Character-driven” was a lot more of a thing, and teen flicks had a way of emphasizing the seemingly interminable torments of being a teen by letting things unspool very gradually and with way fewer explosions. The film had been made on a budget of $1 million, which in today’s money might not even cover craft services. I figured we had maybe fifteen minutes before it went the way of the 1978 Superman. (“If you make me watch this whole thing you don’t ever get to complain about Young Justice again. Ever.”). I braced for sarcasm.

My daughter watched the opening montage tick past. The empty hallway and the dreary analog clock. The “I’m eating my head” gouged into a piece of wood. The dismal expanse of red-gloss lockers, the mounds of garbage. “I don’t like Mondays” in not-quite-ironic-enough quotes graffiti’d to a wall. (“That’s a song reference,” I told Grace. “remind me to play it for you after.”)

“Mom … shhh.”

The kid was entranced. Trophy case. Vote for Prom Queen poster. More garbage. Iconic Simple Minds soundtrack. And one by one, five teenagers showing up, looking chastened or defensive or defiant or just pissed off. Hughes managed to telegraph where each of them came from-socially, economically and psychologically-in under five minutes. Honestly, while I remembered enjoying the movie, I didn’t really remember thinking it was brilliant.

It’s pretty freaking brilliant.

The Breakfast Club is officially off my bubblegum list. Watching it again was way more than a Memory Lane pony ride; it was cool. At a craft level I never appreciated, it is a cool film, deftly composed, expertly paced, wonderfully acted. There they were, looking painfully young. Five teenagers from totally different social strata who find themselves unlikely cellmates in a Saturday detention, where the asshole principal has tasked them with writing an essay on the subject of “Who Do You Think You Are?” They have nothing in common. They have nothing but contempt for each other. Only not really. There’s nothing like being stripped of your distractions, your liberty and your access to your comfort zone for breaking down walls. By the end of the day, Ally Sheedy’s Madame Psych Ward character has traded her bag-lady sweater and archeologist-worthy layers of black eyeliner for a demure white blouse and pink cheeks thanks to Molly Ringwald’s Pouty Prom Queen. Emilio Estevez’s Jock with a Side of Bully knows he’s strong enough to stand up to his bullying father (though defenseless against Sheedy kissing him and ripping a letter off his varsity jacket). Anthony Michael Hall’s Pencil-Neck Ubernerd gets stoned and discovers a renewed will to live plus some serious dance moves. And Judd Nelson’s Lost Cause Asshole speaks the ugly truth and is, for once, heard (and gets to “hit that” instead of just getting hit). The artifices of class and power and intellect and social credit and authority dissolve in the warmth of confession and the discovery of common ground that has been both specifically earned, and always there in the first place. They leave irrevocably changed, while in voiceover you hear the words of the “Who Do You Think You Are” essay, in which they agree that “each one of us is a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal” as the Simple Minds’ classic “Don’t You Forget About Me” swells from underscore to full volume as the credits roll.

But you know all that, because you’ve seen the movie—it’s iconic. The Library of Congress has added it to the National Film Registry, an honor reserved for films of enduring significance. (So if you haven’t seen it—get on it.)

But what about Grace, who doesn’t go to Shermer High, Shermer, Ohio? She’s fortunate enough to inhabit a small progressive bubble where nerds outnumber queen bees by a huge margin and where bullying will get you summarily Not Invited Back. I thought maybe she wouldn’t even get it, wouldn’t get that these places were even reality for most kids. (My middle school certainly met the Hell criteria.) But no—Hughes completely captured the attention of someone who could not possibly attribute her fascination to nostalgia. Not all of John Hughes’ films hold up equally well—how did people ever think Sixteen Candles was funny?)—but there is something eternal about The Breakfast Club, a sort of deathless teen mojo. Hughes captured something I must concede is not only entertaining but probably important. It’s hard to say exactly what it is, but while it was ostensibly, like many a teen movie, about stereotypes, underneath that, there was a teen-accessible but surprisingly deep dive into archetypes.

Grace is growing up in a generation where film and literature seem to be overwhelmingly about heroes destroying a horrifying external threat. Hughes wasn’t focused on that. He was interested in the developmentally fundamental Teen Question, the one that transcends race, culture, gender, sexuality, class and every other pigeonholing demographic, and goes straight to the psyche: Who do you think you are?

In The Breakfast Club, he generously allows the characters to answer that question for themselves, and he uses drama and comedy to equal advantage along the way. The film basically takes place in a single room. The plot is gossamer; the whole thing turns on character. And it worked then, and it works now. There’s an earned optimism to it. It has sincerity without being saccharine, levity without being trivial. Grace’s favorite part was the dance sequence after they all get stoned to the rafters on John Bender’s stash of pot. Because it was funny but also because it wordlessly expressed who these kids thought they were, and it highlighted their differences and also their commonalities. At least, the first time: The second time we watched it, she was riveted by the moments of confession where characters exposed their ugly sides or explained what put them in detention. Debate is ongoing as to whether Hall’s attempted suicide with a flare gun or Sheedy’s sheepish-grin “I didn’t have anything else to do” was more poignant. What my daughter has decided is that The Breakfast Club is officially her favorite movie, ever. And when we watch it for the third time, I bet she’ll still squeal and bounce in her seat when Judd Nelson puts Molly Ringwald’s diamond solitaire earring in his ear and lopes across the football field with his fist aloft in a gesture of victory.

I think the kid’s got taste.

Mom Rating: 10
Snarky Teen Rating: 10