‘Breakfast Club’ at 30: Don’t you forget about them

  • By Christopher Borrelli Chicago Tribune
  • Friday, March 20, 2015 12:55pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

When you grow up, your heart dies.

I know this because Ally Sheedy told me so. She said we all become our parents, there is no avoiding it. Also, if I ever do decide to run away from home, I don’t have to live on the streets; I could go to Afghanistan.

The day she first told me that (I have since heard this wisdom many, many times), she sounded so right. I was 14, and that day was in February 1985. In fact, you might even say that 30 years ago this month, for 97 minutes, during that opening-night screening of “The Breakfast Club,” everything made sense: If you smoked pot, you would dance maniacally like Emilio Estevez. Judd Nelson was obviously our next aspirational figure. Everyone, in every social group, no matter how well-adjusted they appeared, had been screwed up by their parents. And if you just stuck five high-school archetypes in a library for a long Saturday of detention, no matter how disparate their backgrounds, they would arrive at a cross-clique understanding.

Which was, as Anthony Michael Hall wrote to the school disciplinarian at the end of “The Breakfast Club,” summarizing how everyone in the film’s detention felt about adults: “You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain (Hall), an athlete (Estevez), a basket case (Sheedy), a princess (Molly Ringwald) and a criminal (Nelson).” Or as Pauline Kael described them in the New Yorker: “A bunch of stereotypes who complain that other people see them as stereotypes.”

So harsh!

And so true: Even now, at the right age, “The Breakfast Club,” which will return to theaters on March 26 and recently got touched up with a remastered Blu-ray edition, seems to boil down high school to core truths.

Think of the following as a where-is-it-now, the themes, plot details and settings of “The Breakfast Club,” 30 years later. Or don’t think of it that way! See what I care! I hate you! I hate you and wish I was never born!

The fist-pump field

The iconic last shot of the movie. Nelson walks across a football field as Hall’s pensive narration explains teenagers just want to be understood, Nelson pumps his fist in triumph, the movie ends. OK, where is this field? Online speculation has placed it everywhere from Maine South High School in Park Ridge, Ill., to Maine West in Des Plaines, Ill., to Glenbrook North — in fact, GBN’s school lore so strongly insists GBN is the source that students occasionally strike a Nelson fist pump in the approximate spot on their football field. The truth is… well, sorry: That field was at now-defunct Maine North High School in Des Plaines, where the rest of the film was shot. Thomas Del Ruth, the film’s cinematographer, told me: “We never left the premises during production. It was faster that way.”


Though the movie recalls Hughes’ time at Glenbrook North, the detention plot comes via New Trier Township High School, in Winnetka, Ill., where weekday morning detention had been nicknamed “The Breakfast Club” for decades. And yes, morning detention remains a New Trier institution. “But I made it a personal point a few years ago of not having it called ‘Breakfast Club’ anymore,” said Scott Williams, New Trier’s assistant principal in charge of discipline. “‘Breakfast Club’ sounded fun. Detention is not supposed to be fun — there is no dancing on tables or climbing into ceilings.”

Parental alienation

The charges directed at the parents of the Breakfast Club are vast: They smother, pressure, abuse, but mostly, ignore. “That film came at an interesting swing in culture,” said Stephanie Coontz, who teaches family studies at Evergreen State College in Washington. “Mothers, already entering the workforce in large numbers, were now accused of neglecting their kids, same as dad, who long ago let everyone down. Until gradually, broadly speaking, kids started to feel closer to parents, and the generation gap grew tighter.” Helicopter-parenting tighter: A recent U.S. Census Bureau study found 14 percent of millennials 25 to 34 still lived at home; and a 2014 Clark University poll noted at least two-thirds of 25- to 39-year-olds reported positive relationships with parents.


Fur-lined parka hoods, brown leather riding boots, grungy plaids — sound familiar? If “The Breakfast Club” summons ’80s fashion nightmares in your head, then you haven’t seen it in a while. I asked the Columbia College Chicago Fashion Association, a student group, to take another look: “Molly Ringwald’s brown boots are very now,” said sophomore Michelle Pelletier. “That flannel (on Nelson) is very androgynous, very everyone-wears-that now,” said freshman Ashley Woosley. “Ally looks pretty chic actually,” said junior Sinclaire Fonville. “Baggy sweaters are super in, plus I totally relate to the layered look. And her big bag, really cute.” I told this to Marilyn Vance, who served as costume designer on the movie (as well as six other Hughes films). She wasn’t surprised: “The idea behind the clothes in that film was to make sure nothing dated fast. John didn’t want them in fashions of the day — he wanted them dressed in the fashions of the characters.”

The library

Most of the movie unfolds in a two-story library. This was built inside Maine North’s gymnasium. The Chicago Blitz practiced here; Michael Jordan shot commercials here. Scarpelli walked me to a large door. “Here’s where the magic happened,” he said, inviting me in with a Price-Is-Right wave of wonder. More poetry: The memorable set where five teens reached an adolescent detente is now a warehouse for the Illinois Department of Human Services. There is no trace of a library, but there are boxes of toner cartridge.

Cliques understanding

Ultimately, the crux of the film.

Things haven’t changed too much. To write “Popular,” a memoirish account of follwing a 1950s popularity guide, Maya Van Wagenen, an 11th grader from Georgia, sat at a different lunch table in school every day. “And I learned high school hasn’t really changed from ‘The Breakfast Club.’ The Ally Sheedy character wouldn’t feel so isolated because of social media. You might move between groups more, I suppose. But when I sat at those tables, everyone fed into the identities that were already created for them. It built walls, so when I climbed those walls, I would get asked: ‘What are the people at those other tables like?’ And I would say, ‘They just talk about the same things you do.’”

One final note: Last year Ringwald watched “The Breakfast Club” with her 10-year old daughter for an episode of public radio’s “This American Life.” Her daughter cried in recognition at Hall’s sobs of feeling pressured by his parents; and Ringwald, heartbroken by this, realized that she felt suddenly sorry for parents in the movie.

So, there you go: understanding.

Where to see it

“The Breakfast Club” will be shown March 26 at these area theaters: Alderwood 7 Theatres, Barkley Village (Bellingham), Bella Botega 11 Cinema (Redmond), Pacific Place (Seattle), Thornton Place (Seattle), Southcenter 16 (Tukwila)

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