Seeing as this is the first go around, you might be wondering to yourself what “Over/Under” is, and rightly so. It’s a new weekly column in which I will take to task a film that has gotten more than its fair share of success and praise, and then champion a related film that comparatively gets little play.
This isn’t necessarily to say that the first film is bad and the second one good, just that the disparity in love between the two is a wrong that needs to be righted.
But if you choose to believe that what I’m writing is more mean-spirited and antagonistic than intended, that’s fine with me too. Let’s spar in the comments; I could use the attention. For our inaugural column we’ll be looking at John Hughes’s 1985 detention drama The Breakfast Club, a film that the teenagers who work for me still mention as being a classic, and David Seltzer’s 1986 nerd meets girl movie Lucas, a film that I can’t get a darn one of those kids to give a chance.
What do they have in common?
Both of these films are 80s era teen dramas that deal with the disruption of established social structures within the American high school system. In The Breakfast Club five students of different archetypes are thrust together into a Saturday detention and forced to interact. As a result, the depths of their social divisions are put to the test. Laughs are laughed, cries are cried, and at the end everyone learns something about themselves and each other.
Lucas tells the tale of a new girl in town who forms a unique friendship with the town pariah and then has this new friendship tested when she is offered admission into the cool clique through the means of cheerleading and dating a popular jock. Feeling rebuked, the undersized pariah decides to join the school football team in order to prove his mettle. Lessons are learned, kisses are kissed, and big games are played.
Also, both films end with still images of arms dramatically thrust into the air, the way a good 80s movie should.
Why is The Breakfast Club overrated?
Everyone shares fond memories of The Breakfast Club. It’s full of big actors, has some clever dialogue, a rebellious teenage swagger, and works as a cinematic yearbook for the shared experience of attending a public high school in the US. Everyone remembers somebody who fit into each “type” of character represented in this film. And everyone wants to think that they were above the cliquiness of high school, whether they were or not. Plus, it has Bender defiantly throwing up the rock while ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ by Simple Minds plays. But what people don’t seem to want to admit is that when viewed through modern eyes The Breakfast Club is a shallow film that survives mostly due to nostalgia. John Hughes is a capable filmmaker, but if he was great at anything it was capturing a moment and tapping into the zeitgeist of the time.
What you’re left with when you push all of that aside is a film where a group of one-dimensional characters come to false epiphanies through forced, unnatural dialogues. From the moment the kids are dropped off by their parents they are presented to us as caricatures. The nerd shows up in a station wagon with a license plate reading “EMC2,” the rich girl shows up in a BMW, etc… The principal who oversees their detention is delightfully evil, but he’s never presented as being anything other than a villain for villainy’s sake. Even when he finds himself sharing a quiet moment and a beer with the school janitor his character doesn’t develop past insecurity and bitterness. And when the kids supposedly ascend above their archetypes, you won’t buy into it.
Ally Sheedy plays the artsy girl as a feral dog for the first half of the film, but then achieves normalcy by the end because somebody talked to her and gave her a makeover. Emilio Estevez spends so much of the film trying to fluff up his 5’4”ish frame into that of an imposing jock that by the time he has revealed his tragic story of being a repentant bully you just feel bad for the guy for being so woefully miscast; there’s no chance you’re going to care that he has supposedly matured by squirting out a few tears. This is a film that speaks only to the teenage experience and not to the human experience as a whole. Characters who would still hate each other in any real world situation walk away friends because they all share a resentment of their parents. How long is that going to last? Once you’ve gotten past the novelty of rebelling against perceived authority, The Breakfast Club loses a bunch of its sting.
Why is Lucas underpraised?
Lucas does everything that The Breakfast Club does but is subtler, more nuanced, and stands up better over time. Its characters aren’t cartoons, but real people who you would probably like to know. While the character introductions in The Breakfast Club were handled a little too on the nose for me, I find the way we are introduced to Lucas (Corey Haim) to be absolutely sublime. We meet the shrimpy little dweeb as he picks his way through some foliage. Butterfly net in hand, he communes with nature and inspects the local insects. His world is presented as magical and interesting, and we feel a part of it. But suddenly the camera pulls back out of a close shot on Haim and we see him how the rest of the characters in the film do, as a skeevy little weirdo lurking around in the weeds outside of cheerleading practice. Just from the opening scene you know everything you need to about the title character, and the film was able to introduce him without having him roll into frame riding a recumbent bicycle and wearing a shirt that says “nerd.”
From top to bottom, the characters are handled better here. Lucas may be the put upon outcast, but he is maybe the most close-minded, judgmental character in the film. Charlie Sheen plays the popular jock, and he acts like a bit of an idiot, but he’s not completely unreasonable. He never tapes anyone’s butt cheeks together. Courtney Thorne-Smith plays the popular girl, and yeah, she’s pretty much a bitch; but at least she has a reason to be. The new girl is very clearly stealing her boyfriend. And that new girl, played by Kerri Green, she’s probably the most complex character that appears in either film. She doesn’t immediately fit into any group. She’s the type of person who will befriend a lonely nerd, but she’s also the kind of person who will go after somebody else’s beau.
Evening The Odds
The Breakfast Club’s message is that our differences are just roles we’re playing and really we’re all the same underneath. I hate that. Lucas isn’t a cool kid underneath all of his layers. He really is a dweeby goon. He’s not going to turn into somebody else by the end of the film; he’s never going to win the big game. That doesn’t mean that he can’t have value, it doesn’t mean that he can’t grow. But it does mean that a cute little redhead like Kerri Green’s character is never going to be able to be in a relationship with him. She’s out of his league. And when she ends up breaking his heart so she can be with Charlie Sheen it will crush you, but you won’t be able to blame her. Because even when you’re right there with Lucas feeling his pain there’s still going to be a little part of you that wants to reach down and give his dorky ass a wedgie. That’s a complexity that The Breakfast Club can’t touch. And as much as can be said about that film’s star power, maybe even more can be said of Lucas’.
You can have Molly Ringwald. For me the quintessential cute 80s redhead is Kerri Green: by far. You can have Ally Sheedy. The artsy girl in Lucas is played by Winona Ryder. Ally Sheedy, I challenge you to outweird Winona Ryder. And that’s not even mentioning the two school bullies, Spike and Bruno. They’re played by Jeremy Piven, back when he had a full head of hair (the first time), and Lars from Heavyweights. I’ll repeat that: Lars from Heavyweights. And he has a ridiculous sunburn. Beat that, Breakfast Club.