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

From left, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, and Anthony Michael Hall in "The Breakfast Club."

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" seems to boil down high school to core truths. Yet decades later, we should be grateful the characters never had a chance to meet again, "Before Sunset"-style, and discuss where they are now: Off camera, writer/director John Hughes, who based the film on his years as a student at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Ill., died of a heart attack at 59. In a bit of eerie foreshadowing, Estevez, the jock, peaked in those Brat Pack years; Ringwald, a part-time jazz singer, stayed beloved; Sheedy and Nelson remained somewhat outsiders. Only Hall, the nerd who bulked up and into a character actor (he's Steve Carell's fixer in "Foxcatcher"), seems transformed.

And that fear of becoming our parents?

Financially, we should be so lucky.

But that high school in the movie?

Even less lucky.

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: "The field shot? We did it behind the same school where we were shooting. 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." As for Saturday detention: It also lives, from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. It's run by volunteer staff who have been known (as in the film) to ask students to write what they learned in detention. "Saturdays are for students who make more involved choices," Williams said. In the movie, Nelson gets eight weeks of detention: "If we had a student at that level, I doubt he would be going here now."

Teen smoking

Nelson smokes cigarettes and marijuana. "Only burners like you get high," Ringwald says. But later in the film, everyone does. Which makes sense: According to the University of Michigan's 40-year-old Monitoring the Future survey, 39 percent of 12th graders in 1985 smoked pot at least once a year; in 2014, it was about 37 percent. Cigarettes are another story: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say 27.5 percent of high-school students smoked in 1991 (the first year it kept that statistic); by 2013, fewer than 16 percent smoked. Kathy Crosby, director of the Office of Health Communications and Education at the Center for Tobacco Products (a division of the FDA), said perceived glamour surrounding e-cigarettes is a concern but the FDA has no regulatory authority there yet. But 30 years of "smart tobacco control efforts" have reduced the prevalence of smoking among popular kids, she said. "The target of our efforts now is very similar to Nelson's character — rebels, loners, the ones from broken homes who remain at risk for tobacco abuse."

Feeling alienated from parents

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 and serves as director of public education at the University of Illinois' Council on Contemporary Families. "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. "Parenting in the past 30 years has been more empathetic and immersed in children's lives," said Robin Shapiro, a Highland Park, Ill., psychiatrist who specializes in adolescents. "Not that alienation doesn't exist — it's a common step to forming your identity." Indeed, if anything, said Rosalind Wiseman, whose book "Queen Bees and Wannabes" was the basis for "Mean Girls," "parenting is so defined these days by a constant anxiety about your children, there's maybe a stronger sense developing among kids that involving their parents in their worries will make things worse."

The school

There's poetry to these facts: "The Breakfast Club" was shot inside Des Plaines' Maine North High School. The school itself closed in 1981. It is now the home to an Illinois State Police district office, an Illinois Lottery prize center, a Cook County 911 center and assorted other very official state offices you never wanted to work at when you were 16. The building, as totalitarian-looking as in the film, is a gray best described as the color of souls being crushed. Ernie Scarpelli, building manager, gave me a tour: The hallways that the cast sprinted through are institutional yellow now; the lockers are gone. But in the basement, in a glass case, there is a "Breakfast Club" poster to mark the location. "We get about 30 people a summer begging to see where the movie was made," Scarpelli said. "We just ask them to take a picture of the front of the building. Personally, I think it's an overrated movie, but this is America, so watch it 100 times, I don't really care."


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.

The critical assessment

"The Breakfast Club" made $51 million on a modest budget of $1 million. Chicago reviews were generous: Roger Ebert ("a surprisingly good ear") and Gene Siskel ("thoroughly serious") raised their thumbs. Elsewhere, notice was mixed. Kirk Honeycutt, then film critic for the Los Angeles Daily News (and later the Hollywood Reporter), remembers: "I thought the movie was a little pat, a little too eager to blame parents, then go home." These days, it's seen as Hughes' defining work, an '80s touchstone with a Rotten Tomatoes approval (comprised of mostly blog reviews) of 91 percent. It is in a way a reminder that nostalgia and reassessment take an outsized role in deciding what becomes a classic. Honeycutt, for instance, has a new book: "John Hughes: A Life in Film." He told me: "A lot of critics didn't treat (Hughes) fairly. I think we were too worried about, say, Woody Allen. These kid problems looked overblown. We missed the relevance. Hughes was making a point about how it felt to be a teen, and we missed it with 'Breakfast Club.' I failed it too. But then, a good film — you see something new each time. And 30 years later, I've changed my mind."

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.

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