Movie Review: Sixteen Candles (1984)
“16 Candles. And you’re invited to the party.”
Sixteen Candles (1984)
Director: John Hughes
Cast: Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Justin Henry
Synopsis: A girl’s sixteenth birthday begins badly when it’s forgotten by her entire family, but only gets worse when the object of her crush learns of her interest in him.
In the mid-1980s, 34-year-old former National Lampoon staff writer John Hughes hit upon a durable formula which would, for a few brief years, make him the unrivalled king of the teen comedy: take one troubled teenager – but only slightly troubled: self-harming bulimics have no place in a Hughes comedy – and place them in situations designed to illustrate the precarious tightrope which bisects dignity and humiliation and is negotiated by millions of teenagers every day. Teen movies like American Graffiti had been hugely successful in the 1970s, but that movie and its immediate successors generally harked back to an era when the target audience, in their mid-to-late thirties, were teenagers. Hughes’ movies not only addressed the problems and interests of teenagers of the day, and had an uncanny knack for capturing the way they thought and spoke, but also appealed to young adults who had only recently left their teen years behind.
Humiliation of some description would inevitably befall a Hughes’ hero or heroine, and would usually involve the object of their romantic fantasies. It’s perhaps a little surprising, then, that Hughes chose a girl to be his protagonist for Sixteen Candles, his first effort as a director. In fact, Molly Ringwald, who plays Sam Baker in the film, provided Hughes with the inspiration for its story when he taped her publicity head shot above his desk and wrote the screenplay over the course of a weekend. Sam is an ordinary teenage girl. She’s pretty, but in a wholesome rather than sexy way, and is tormented by insecurities over her looks and body – especially when confronted by the perky naked breasts of cheerleader type Caroline Mulford (Haviland Morris) in the school showers. To add to Sam’s dismay, Caroline is dating the hunky senior Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling), on whom Sam has a major crush. Although Jake is more sensitive than his popular image might suggest, Sam is too insecure to believe he could ever be interested in her, and it takes the efforts of geeky would-be heartthrob Farmer Ted (Anthony Michael Hall – Six Degrees of Separation, The Dark Knight) to convince her otherwise.
Although Sixteen Candles is ostensibly about Sam, almost as much screen time is given over to the exploits of Farmer Ted, and one suspects that Hughes lacked confidence to build the movie entirely around his depiction of a teenage girl. He was, to a degree, right to be unsure – after all, how many girls openly ogle the naked body of a classmate in the shower in the way that Sam and her friend do? – but Sixteen Candles is such a lightweight vehicle that depth of characterisation was never really going to be a priority. Anyway, it’s Ted who provides most of the buffoonish comedy touches by pursuing, with indestructible optimism, girls who are clearly out of his league, allowing Sam to harvest audience sympathy as she stresses over her infatuation with Jake and the fact that her entire family are so pre-occupied with the imminent marriage of her older sister that they have forgotten her sixteenth birthday. Hall was a favourite of Hughes in his early days (he turned down a role in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off),and does a terrific job of keeping Ted likeable, even when he’s selling glimpses of Sam’s discarded panties for $1 a shot.
Teen movies, by definition, tap into the things which interest the teens at which they are aimed, and a film like Sixteen Candles demonstrates just how much the world has changed since 1984. Gedde Watanabe’s comical, stereotypical depiction of a Korean exchange student, whose every appearance is greeted by the sound of a gong being struck, would never find its way into a modern movie; another scene in, which Jake reflects on how he could violate his drunken, passed-out girlfriend in 10 different ways must have seemed at odds with his nice guy character even back in the ‘80s, while yet another scene, in which Ted and Caroline conclude that he probably took advantage of her while she was drunkenly semi-conscious the night before is often seen as condoning – or at least failing to condemn – date rape. How an individual responds to such aspects of the movie will depend on whether they were alive in 1984, but should really be accepted as a reflection of the culture in which the movie was made, rather than greeted with disapproval. People were a lot less sensitive to such things back in 1984, and those who condemn the previous generation might do well to consider that it’s only a matter of thirty years or so before they experience the same disapproval from the next.
Sixteen Candles is an inconsequential but fun movie that will always holds a small place in history for kick-starting the ‘80s teen genre. Its values may be questionable, but the cast is likeable enough (even Caroline, who would be portrayed in most teen movies as a conceited bitch) and the soundtrack is crammed with ‘80s pop songs.
(Reviewed 18th June 2016)