Frozen in time: the ending of The Breakfast Club

By the close of John Hughes’s 1985 high-school comedy, the young students have found liberation from the stereotypical roles that have been suffocating them, but how long will the euphoria last?

The Breakfast Club (1985)

It’s perhaps one of the most memorable freeze-frames in modern cinema. Striding across a high-school football field to the urgent strains of Simple Minds’ ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’, Judd Nelson triumphantly punches the air, silhouetted against the darkening sky. The shot freezes and slowly fades, a euphoric ending to John Hughes’s seminal 1985 film The Breakfast Club… Or is it? While Hughes’s film, about five high-school students discovering themselves during a Saturday detention, is widely regarded as an upbeat 80s comedy, there’s a darker seam running through the narrative, one that can’t be so neatly resolved.

Central to the film is the idea that each of its characters is not only defined by a recognisable stereotype but is being suffocated by it – the brain (Anthony Michael Hall’s Brian), the athlete (Emilio Estévez’s Andy), the basket case (Ally Sheedy’s Allison), the princess (Molly Ringwald’s Claire) and the criminal (Nelson’s John Bender). Even Claire, supposedly top of the heap as the popular prom queen, longs for her own identity. “I hate having to go along with everything my friends say,” she laments. But, of course, it’s easier to just give people what they want. While The Breakfast Club is set entirely within Shermer High School, Hughes makes it clear that this doctrine of conformity extends beyond the institution’s walls; that each character’s sense of self is also being pummelled by their parents. Brian reveals how the academic pressure placed upon him has led him to contemplate suicide. Andy’s aggressive behaviour is a reflection of his father’s philosophy of performative machismo. Claire feels like a manipulated pawn in her parents’ divorce, while Allison is utterly ignored by hers. And while Bender may mimic his abusive father to ridicule his peers’ sob stories, he’s obviously buckling under physical and emotional torment.

The Breakfast Club (1985)

These are some weighty shackles to shake off, but this time together – unobserved by anyone other than spiteful teacher Mr Vernon, an enemy against whom they can unite – gives them a neutral space in which their masks begin to slip. Souls are bared, experiences shared and what feel like genuine connections made. (In a somewhat eyerolling nod to genre convention, Bender and Claire share a kiss, as do Allison and Andy). They have seen each other, and themselves, outside of hierarchical constraints. There is hope for something different.

The film’s final scenes share a visual symmetry with the opening ones, but are tonally very different. The first sequences detail the kids’ interactions (or otherwise) with their parents as they are dropped off at detention: Brian’s mother barking at him to study, Andy’s father instructing him to toughen up, Claire’s father offering sushi for lunch, Allison’s father driving off without a word and Bender – in a neat mirroring of his final strut – walking up alone.

Eight hours later, however, and there is a sense that these teens have fledged, have exorcised the demons of expectation and are now operating on their own terms. While cars pull up, we don’t see any parents, let alone hear them; the camera is focused on the kids’ farewells. The words of Brian’s detention essay for Mr Vernon, which were partly intoned over the opening scenes, now take on a rebellious defiance: “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, and a princess, and a criminal.”

It feels like a jubilant moment of recognition, a shift of the dial. To mark the occasion, totems are exchanged: Claire gives Bender her earring, Allison takes Andy’s varsity patch. But it’s notably unclear whether these are a reminder not to fall back into old ways, or a souvenir from a fleeting moment in time. Earlier, Claire speculates that none of these new bonds will be able to survive the scrutiny of their peers; while she is derided for her comments, she likely gives voice to an uncomfortable truth. Framed in this way, those Simple Minds lyrics seem to take on a pleading air: “Will you recognise me? Call my name or walk on by?” That this detention may be a respite and not a revolution is an idea encapsulated by that freeze-frame, that slow fade. The future is far from certain.

It’s also important to note that, like other Hughes films including Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club has not aged well in its treatment of its female characters. Allison is subject to that tired genre cliché, a climactic ‘prettification’, which wins Andy’s attention. More egregious is Bender’s sexual hounding of Claire; at one horrifying point, putting his head between her legs. So, while the film may remain relevant in its exploration of adolescent vulnerability, that ending should, perhaps, also be a fade-out on such outdated gender representation.

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