Sixteen Candles (Cert 12)
1 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Arrow Video) Running Time: 92 mins/94 mins approx Extended version
To us Brits, American high schools always seem like a hub for debauchery and mischief if films of the 80’s are to be believed; Certainly, my school was nothing like those depicted in films like Porky’s, Animal House, or John Hughes’ directorial debut Sixteen Candles. A cult classic today, it wasn’t a box office hit when released in 1984 but now gets the Blu-ray treatment from Arrow Video.
At the centre of this story is Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) who turns sixteen at the start of the film but her family have forgotten for being preoccupied with the impending wedding of Sam’s older sister Ginny (Blanche Baker). At school things don’t get much better when Sam fills in a sex survey for her friend Randy (Liane Curtis) in which she names an older boy Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling) as whom she would sleep with.
Unbeknownst to Sam, Jake intercepts the note and is intrigued by her admission despite dating popular cheerleader Caroline (Haviland Morris), who he is growing tired of. But Sam can’t seem to tell Jake how he she feels and he thinks she hates him, making a union between them more distant by the minute. Meanwhile Jake is cajoled into hosting a wild party at his house by Caroline that has a lasting effect for a lot of people.
By the time Hughes stepped into the director’s chair for Sixteen Candles, he was already an experienced scriptwriter of classic subversive comedies such as the National Lampoon series starring Chevy Chase, yet at 34 years-old when he wrote this script there is a very prevalent streak of immaturity in a lot of the humour and the situations that belies the humanity that Hughes is known for bringing to his characters in what is an endemically puerile genre.
For Sam, she is expecting her sixteenth year of life to bring about the changes that will see her into adulthood which, naturally, this involves boys. Hughes’ twist is putting this expectancy onto a female character and not a boy as per the usual route, though we are not short of horny boys also looking for horizontal hijinks. Front and centre is The Geek (Anthony Michael Hall), a cocky, skinny dweeb with the gift of the gab but the success rate with girls of a period on their wedding day (an in-joke about the final act).
It’s probably fair to say that The Geek is the most entertaining and funniest character in the film, although viewed through modern eyes a lot of his exploits would see him locked up or hounded to death by feminists. He is endearing in that his charisma stops him from being beaten up and he actually makes some headway when he drops the charade, whilst he is self-belief is often David Brent-level cringe worthy.
The Geek and Sam inadvertently lead to the other finally reaching their goals though it is a convoluted path they both have to travel first. For Sam though, she also has to deal with the entire family, now including two sets of different grandparents – one old fashioned, the other overtly boorish – having forgotten her birthday, leaving her feeling unloved at home. But while her day turns worse, Sam is unaware that Jake is actually hoping to make it better for her.
Whilst the Jake situation is complicated, Sam doesn’t really deserve to be ignored by her family and this subplot feels directionless beyond making Sam sympathetic until her father (Paul Dooley) is the first one to realise the oversight and apologises for it. This is another role reversal, having Sam comforted by a male and not a female as per our expectations and is better off for it.
But as progressive as this might sound for the 80’s, this film does contain two very dated indiscretions that have since tarnished its legacy. First if the character of Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe), a Chinese exchange student whose presence is solely for comedic purposes, his portrayal racially insensitive in its lazy stereotyping, with his “Engrish” dialogue and the sound of a Chinese gong sounding whenever he appears.
More contentious is the implied “date rape” of Caroline. Late in the film, the supposedly perfect Jake laments the lack of serious romance with the currently intoxicated Caroline, saying he could “violate her” if he wanted, then “gives” her to The Geek, telling him to “have fun”. The next morning it is suggested the pair slept together yet Caroline was unconscious and The Geek doesn’t recall either but revels in his assumed newfound stud status.
Some might make an argument that this was 35 years ago and times have changed, but this doesn’t lessen the seriousness of the situation. For Hughes, who was usually clever enough not to use such situations to celebrate them but to illustrate the consequences, this seems like a badly judged misstep. It certainly puts a huge question mark over the halo previously attached to the deified Jake if that is his attitude towards women.
Hopefully, this can be seen as an aberration in what is a wryly amusing comedy with some genuinely unique characters that redesigned the teen tropes. Molly Ringwald plays Sam straight, making her stand out less as a caricature and more relatable to girls of the same age, but for this writer it is Anthony Michael Hall as The Geek who steals the show in reinventing the deluded nerd for many a generation to come. Also look out for future star siblings John and Joan Cusak in supporting roles.
Flaws aside, Sixteen Candles is John Hughes looking to make his mission statement as a director as well as a writer, which he would deliver loud and clear in his next film The Breakfast Club. If one can overlook the dubious content and dated low brow humour attendant in the teen movie milieu, they will find an intelligent coming of age opus that speaks to a generation rather than at them.
English “Home Video Version” Mono
English HOH Subtitles
Alternative Home Video Soundtrack
Casting Sixteen Candles
When Gedde Met Deborah
Rudy The Bohunk
The New Wave Nerd
Music For Geeks
A Very Eighties Fairytale
Celebrating Sixteen Candles
Trailers & TV Spots
First Pressing only: Illustrated Collector’s Booklet
Rating – ***
Man In Black