What differentiates a cult film from the countless other movies released from Hollywood every year? Why do these movies stand the test of time and, more importantly, maintain fervent multi-generational followers? In this new series, Cult Film Crash Course, I’ll attempt to answer these questions about cult film qualities and more!
“The Breakfast Club,” arguably thee most iconic ’80s movie, continues to maintain a massive cult following over 30 years since its release. If any movie might be labeled a ‘cult film,’ it’s “The Breakfast Club,” and one key ingredient that secures this title is the film’s relatable nature.
For those who haven’t see the film, “The Breakfast Club” takes place one Saturday when five teens congregate in the library of Shermer High School in Shermer, Ill. to serve a day-long detention for various transgressions. Each student fits perfectly into five common high school archetypes. At first glance, Claire Standish, played by the iconic Molly Ringwald, is the stereotypical wealthy, “popular girl”. Andrew Clarke, played by Emilo Estevez, matches the athletic “jock” archetype. John Bender, played by Judd Nelson, plays the angry “rebel”. The “geek” population of the school is represented by Brian Johnson, played by Anthony Michael Hall. Finally, Allison Reynolds, played by Ally Sheedy , is the friendless “outcast”. At the beginning of the day, the five students are awkward around each other. Naturally Claire and Andrew, the princess and the jock, sit at the same table while every other student finds a seat at a solitary table. By the end of the day, several awkward and confrontational moments break down their social barriers, and the five find out they are not so different from one another.
John Bender acts as the driving force behind most of the movie’s most pivotal moments. At first, he appears to be nothing more than a mindlessly abusive and angry individual, trampling anything or anyone who presents a threat to him. From the onset, John forces Brian to move seats, mocks Claire for her perfect image and even challenges Mr. Vernon, the detention proctor, earning himself eight more detentions. Later in the film, viewers discover that his rebelliousness is not a natural disposition; rather, it is the result of horrific domestic abuse at the hands of his father, which also explains his incessant desire to challenge Mr. Vernon — he is a father-like figure who John can stand up to without fear of being physically harmed. As a rejected outcast in the school’s social structure, he resents his peers who don’t face similar home lives and embraces his social status because he’d rather be seen as mindlessly angry than weak.
Claire faces a different form of abuse in her home life — manipulation. Her parents use her as their pawn to one-up each other, with complete disregard for how it may affect Claire. Though she is wealthy, popular and beautiful, she faces severe insecurities rooted in a feeling of abandonment. Claire weaponizes her sexuality and utilizes popularity to prevent outsiders from seeing how lonely and unloved she feels. When she is called out about her vulnerability, she says that if she doesn’t feel bad for herself, nobody will. At school, Claire faces pressure to maintain her perfect image, knowing that failure to do so will compromise the love she receives from her friends, which she is not receiving at home.
Walking in a similar social circle as Claire, Andrew faces pressures from his father to be a winner in everything he does. The only affirmation or love Andrew feels from his father comes is earned through his physical strength and athletic success. He earned himself a spot in detention by physically lashing out at a weaker boy in the locker room, Larry — an act he committed only to win the affection of his father. In a tearful moment, Andrew considers his disdain for his father and the regret he feels for his actions and the humiliation he caused Larry, one of Brian’s good friends.
Brian, referred to as “the brain” throughout the movie, is extremely intelligent and walks among the schools “geeky crowd.” At the beginning of the movie, he is disregarded by the other students as a nerd, bound for a successful life. Later in the film, Brian reveals that his straight-A academic record is tainted by only one course, Shop class. He is humiliated that the one class bringing down his average is commonly recognized as one of the easiest courses offered in the high school. His desire for academic perfection and fear of social ridicule from his peers drove him to the brink of suicide. Brian fears his parents’ reaction to his failure, as well.
Allison, called the “basket case,” is perhaps the greatest enigma of the film. Without saying a word for the first half of the movie, after smoking weed with some of the other students, she opens up about her deep dissatisfaction with her home life and feeling completely forgotten by her parents. In fact, she attended detention because she had nothing better to do. She desires attention because she receives none at home.
As the story unfolds, the characters start to better understand that, despite their differences in social standing, they are each facing personal challenges that often go unaddressed.
“The Breakfast Club” has become a cult film not only because its relatable — it’s timelessly relatable. Those who viewed the movie at the time of its release and viewers today can empathize with one, if not all of the narratives that the movie highlights. Whether it is social or parentally based abuse, manipulation, neglect or ridicule, facing adversity on any level is a fundamentally human experience. “The Breakfast Club” shows that vulnerability can wipe away superficial facades and reveal more authentic elements of humanity that each person, regardless of subjective experiences, can relate to in one capacity or another — a message that stands regardless of time or place.
No line in the movie affirms this sentiment better than the concluding speech of the film, spoken by Brian and addressed to the proctor, Mr. Vernon:
“You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms. The most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal … Sincerely yours, The Breakfast Club.”