Over/Under: The Breakfast Club (1985) and SLC Punk! (1998)
2015 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the cult classic “The Breakfast Club.” (1985) A variety of other successful coming of age films were released in the 80s such as “Stand By Me,” (1986) “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” (1986) and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” (1982) but “The Breakfast Club” left a much more profound and long-lasting impact on the American social consciousness than all of these combined. Today it’s one of those films that elicits no surprise whatsoever when someone refers to it as their favorite movie of all time, right up there with other classics like “Pulp Fiction,” (1994) “The Shawshank Redemption,” (1994) and “Forrest Gump.” (1994) (Damn, what a year that must’ve been to be alive!)
Quite frankly, I despise this movie. I’m well aware that this is an extremely unpopular opinion. I’m also aware that, having grown up overseas, I can’t relate with a lot of coming of age films because they’re usually framed around a quintessentially American high-school environment. However, I believe this gives me a more objective perspective on the “The Breakfast Club” as a film then as a nostalgia-filled feels-fest (which isn’t an inherently bad thing).
“The Breakfast Club” isn’t without its merits. The dialogue is witty and fast at parts and dark and heavy at others, leading to many memorable lines and conversations. The high school stereotypes are very accurately represented (even if they seem cliché and outdated now) and the actors do them great justice. Indeed, I’m sure that to this day, if an archetypal representative of each social clique were to be put in detention together the way Claire, Brian, Andrew, Allison, and Bender were, I’m sure something very similar could occur. And yet such an interaction is so impossible (even more so in the 80s apparently) that purely by bringing it to life, “The Breakfast Club” achieved something remarkable.
What I have a problem with is the outcome of that fateful Saturday. When they start opening up to each other, it’s less a collective epiphany about maturity and more everyone shouting over each other to make their own problems seem worse than everyone else’s. Yes, Bender is still quoted to this day for his famous “Smoke up, Johnny!” monologue, but he brings up his rough family life because he believes that his struggles are worse than Claire’s. The whole point of the movie is that everybody has their own legitimate problems that the others may never understand. But instead of reaching a greater understanding of their high school environment, the Brat Pack doesn’t get much further than “I have it worse than you.”
Furthermore, “The Breakfast Club” couldn’t have ended on a crappier note. Everyone remembers Bender’s iconic and victorious fist pump to the backdrop of “Don’t You Forget About Me,” but no one seems to remember that nothing really changes. The edgy kid makes out with the prom queen, the jock gets the (now) pretty girl, and the nerd stays behind and writes everyone’s essays for them. Where do I even start? This ending implies that Allison wasn’t beautiful at all before her makeover and that she had to conform to the beauty standards of her time. These standards were imposed upon her by Claire who clearly knows more about how Allison should present herself to other people than Allison herself. Only when she puts on makeup and a bow does she become attractive enough for Andrew to notice her… because the way she was before clearly wasn’t good enough for him. And then everyone leaves Brian behind so that he can do all the nerdwork himself, even though what he writes is accurately representative of how everyone feels. Would it have been so much harder for them to stay for five more minutes and write it together?
During what is arguably the climax of “The Breakfast Club,” Brian asks everyone: “What is going to happen to us on Monday? I mean I consider you guys my friends. I’m not wrong, am I?” Claire gives him the truth, which is that nothing is going to change and everyone will continue to hang out with his or her cliques because that’s what’s normal. “You’d say hi to him and when he’d left you’d cut him all up so that your friends wouldn’t think you really liked him.” Despite the many magical moments that the five kids share and the sugary ending, it’ll remain as a one-time thing. Perhaps “The Breakfast Club”’s portrayal of high school was too realistic in the sense that, despite everyone’s best intentions, nothing will change overnight. Given the perfect opportunity to provide young, jaded minds a sense of optimism and to teach them to stand up for what they believe in, it instead chooses to reinforce the status quo and leaves a subtly bitter aftertaste in the audience’s mouth. Maybe I’m being naïve, or maybe I just don’t get it because my high school life probably vastly differs from yours, but I wish “The Breakfast Club” would’ve given us something more ideal.
When my friend told me that I had to watch “SLC Punk!” I was quite skeptical of its quality. A quick glance at its IMDB page and I still wasn’t sold–there’s a dismal amount of ratings, the poster looks like a rough draft of a Pokémon card, and it stars Matthew Lillard (AKA, live-action Shaggy). My gut was telling me I wasn’t going to like it. And my gut was dead wrong.
“SLC Punk!” is a coming of age romp through the punk scene of Salt Lake City, Utah in the early 80s. Stevo (Matt Lillard), an America-hating punk who has decided his only way to hurt the system is to waste his own potential, has just graduated high-school with alarmingly high grades. To counter this, he and his friend Heroin Bob, played by Michael A. Goorijan (and ironically the only sober character in the film) seek to spend the summer like true punks–bouncing from party to party, loving the art of the fight no matter where or whom they’re fighting (usually rednecks or cops), and listening to some seriously killer retro punk music by bands like The Ramones, The Velvet Underground, The Dead Kennedys, and many more. As their friends start moving on in life in various forms, many leaving for college, they’re forced to re-evaluate their philosophies and try to figure out how to craft a future that doesn’t serve the system they so hate.
For those of you who have seen “A Clockwork Orange”–imagine the beginning of that movie (where Alex and his droogs are generally causing mayhem and having “fun”), but take out pretty much all the disturbing parts and replace the unsettling soundtrack with The Ramones. That’s basically the first half of “SLC Punk!” And the story is told in a similar manner, too, with the main character breaking the fourth wall and reading narration as if directly to the audience. This movie frequently takes that a step further and has Stevo look right at the camera and go on aggressive rants about all sorts of topics. One particular scene has Stevo, mid conversation with another character, stop what he’s doing and begin introducing side characters directly to the audience.
There are many people that drop in and out of Stevo’s journey and almost all of them have some serious on-screen presence. Til Schweiger (Hugo Stiglitz from “Inglorious Basterds”) plays a rich German drug dealer who clingingly seeks approval from others, but is also struggling with a bad case of paranoia and can’t trust a soul. A highly entertaining combo. And the now famous Jason Segel–this being his third movie–gets a decent amount of screen-time as Mike, a nerdy and innocent-looking punk who, in reality, has scathing anger-management issues and can throw a serious punch. Characters usually move in, get a few laughs, and then present their own little life philosophy for Stevo to opine on before fading back into the vast crowds of the punks on screen.
The world of “SLC Punk!” is seen entirely through Stevo’s eyes and he literally guides the audience from scene to scene. At the beginning of the film, you take his word that the views he’s expressing are set in stone even though, in real life, his energetic anarchistic philosophy doesn’t seem sustainable. The movie seems far dethatched from real life at first, however, so it’s easy to roll with it. It’s only after his views get shaken that the narration starts becoming misguided and confused, revealing a very surprising emotional depth in a film that previously seemed like willy-nilly fun. And, like “Almost Famous” or more recently “Straight Outta Compton,” it uses a music movement as a device to explore the mindset and the struggles of a group of people that, otherwise, might be hard for an audience to empathize with. The struggles of 80s punks are very interesting to look back on, and Stevo’s own philosophical battles are easy to connect with and aren’t tied to any era.
Many times, the rebellious phases we go through in life are rooted in legitimate insight that those that are older than us are too beaten down by time to see. But the mindset that comes with that kind of rebellion also doesn’t take into account some of the harder, certainly less fun parts about growing up. “SLC Punk!” is a perfect capturing of that slipping point where everything makes sense for just a moment, but then the carpet’s pulled out from under you and you’re forced to look at life in a whole new way. And it totally nails the vibe of both–the first half is unadulterated fun and you feel Stevo’s energy as he tromps from place to place, thinking he’s immortal, but when things start to get real–woo, boy! Bring the tissues! Matt Lilard’s shockingly good performance is just icing on the cake that is “SLC Punk!,” possibly the most underrated movie of ’98.
Written by William Park and David Goodliffe