Back in the ‘80s, the late filmmaker John Hughes made his name with a string of popular teen comedies. He wrote and directed The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He also penned the screenplays for and produced Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful. While Breakfast Club is often cited as his best, I’ve always found it to be a bit heavy-handed in its message. A group of obvious stereotypes finding common ground despite their differences is a fine message, but apparently not one that many teenagers have learned given the recent focus on anti-bullying. I have always been partial to Sixteen Candles, a slice of life about a teen having a very bad day. Sixteen Candles is funny and charming, and though it doesn’t carry the “important message” of The Breakfast Club, there are still a few lessons to be learned.
Molly Ringwald plays Samantha Baker. Samantha is all set to celebrate her 16th birthday, only to discover that her entire family has forgotten it. Their attention is focused on her older sister Ginny (Blanche Baker), who is getting married the next day. Samantha heads off for an ordinary school day where she and her best friend Randy (Liane Curtis) talk about boys and their lacking social lives. Samantha has a crush on Jake (Michael Schoeffling), a popular senior who is dating the equally popular and very pretty Caroline (Haviland Morris). Samantha doesn’t think Jake knows she exists, but in reality he intercepted a note telling of her infatuation with him. Her interest in him sparks his interest in her.
The plot is super simple. A girl likes a boy that is out of her league, but destiny awaits. It’s certainly been done tons of times. Where Sixteen Candles wins is in the details. Hughes throws in a lot of laughs that keep the movie moving at a brisk pace, for the first half at least. All of Samantha’s grandparents have come out for the wedding. They fawn all over her, make embarrassing jokes, even exclaiming that she has “gotten her boobies.” One pair of grandparents has brought along Long Duk Dong (Gedde Wantanabe), an Asian exchange student who loves mowing the lawn and doing their laundry. Despite the obvious political incorrectness, especially given the implication that Long Duk Dong is more of an indentured servant than a guest, the character has several funny moments as he tries to interact in his new surroundings. Having little interest in the preparations for her sister’s wedding, Samantha heads off to the school dance with Long Duk Dong in tow.
It’s there that she longs to talk to Jake, but is too shy to approach him. She also finds herself warding off the advances of an amorous geeky freshman who goes by Farmer Ted (Anthony Michael Hall). Hall pretty much steals the show with his over the top antics as he tries to prove to his friends that he is a stud around girls. Look for John Cusack in a small role as one of Farmer Ted’s friends. Hughes does a great job of capturing the essence of being a teenager. He captures all the awkwardness of trying to get the attention of someone you like, of feeling too old to hang out with your family but being too young to be totally independent, and of being forced into situations you don’t want to be in. It’s all stuff that as an adult we realize wasn’t all that big of deal, but back then it meant everything.
Coupled with the relatability of the characters are many hilarious jokes and funny situations. Keep a look out for what’s going on in the background, such as a small kid attempting to wrestle a guy three times his size, or the kid at the dance who would rather be home with his parents. John Cusack’s sister Joan also has a funny appearance as a girl who has to awkwardly get through her days wearing a back brace (presumably for scoliosis). Not only is it funny, it’s also a subtle reminder that despite all of Samantha’s insecurities about her looks and her social status, she doesn’t have to deal with anything that bad. All of this works very well for the first half of the movie. The funniness seems to taper off in the second half after the school dance. The story gets bogged down with the romance angle. Still, it’s a well-made comedy, with Molly Ringwald giving a fine performance as an average teen dissatisfied with her averageness. Though the movie has ‘80s written all over it, the story holds up well even today.