Film discussion

Sixteen Candles (1984) – Teen Movie Rewind

In our Teen Movie Rewind series we explore coming of age stories and teen cinema, looking at the impact of the films themselves and the careers that they made.

There were teen movies before John Hughes, of course. The genre was dominated by the likes of National Lampoon’s Animal House, Porky’s, The Last American Virgin and Revenge of the Nerds, while Footloose premiered a few months before Sixteen Candles in 1984. But many of the films of the 80s up to Sixteen Candles were very much male-dominated, featured female characters that functioned mainly as conquests for the male leads, and contained a large dollop of bawdy humour. They were essentially sex comedies, and while they did manage to launch several prominent careers, they very much played in the same wheelhouse in terms of quality. They have their fans to this day, but it’s hard to watch Revenge of the Nerds and not wince at the film’s attitude to sexual behaviour. Sixteen Candles, unfortunately, falls into this same trap.

We may think of Hughes as this wonderful laureate of YA stories and teen cinema, but even his directorial debut, and follow-up Weird Science, resort to the types of clichés and problematic depictions of sex that befell the likes of Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds. If anything is apparent in watching Sixteen Candles and Revenge of the Nerds nowadays, it’s that everyone in 1984 was insensitive when it came to the subject of date rape and consent.

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Sixteen Candles is one of those rite-of-passage films that is hard to ignore. Like so many John Hughes films of this era, many of Sixteen Candles’ scenes and images are ingrained into the fabric of the teen film genre, while storylines in movies and television episodes related to a forgotten birthday are very clearly paying tribute to the film’s central storyline. The sensitivity that we think of when considering Hughes’ output is there at various points throughout, and the film itself already felt different to the majority of other teen films by having a female character front and centre.

That isn’t to say that Sixteen Candles was the first female teen centred film because it wasn’t; the previous year had seen Martha Coolidge’s Valley Girl, which had put as much emphasis on Deborah Foreman’s character as it did on Nicholas Cage’s (and which also scored points for featuring Modern English’s ‘I Melt with You’ on the soundtrack) while 1980’s Foxes, directed by Adrian Lyne, was focused on a group of female characters, one of whom was played by Jodie Foster. Coming off the back of blockbuster successes such Porky’s, Sixteen Candles did feel fresh, with much of its story told from the point of view of lead character Sam, played by Molly Ringwald.

If Hughes is the writer and director we think of as the prime storyteller of teens during the era, then Molly Ringwald is the face we think of in front of the camera. Like Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro when it comes to gangster films, Hughes and Ringwald are a duo whose films come to mind when we think of 80s teen comedy-dramas. They may only have made three films together, but there’s no denying those three films were the most influential of the genre.

There has always been a famous story that Hughes saw Ringwald’s headshot and was inspired to write the film as a result, doing so in two days while prepping The Breakfast Club, originally meant to be his directorial debut but which was pipped to the post when he opted to make Sixteen Candles instead. Ringwald was fifteen when filming, as was Anthony Michael Hall, a rare thing to most modern-day audiences when the majority of the genre tends to be populated by actors and actresses in their twenties, a practice extended to Michael Schoeffling who was twenty-three at the time of filming.

A huge box office success, and the start of an incredible run of commercial successes for Hughes, the film is undeniably famous and iconic, but it’s very much a film of its era in its lax attitudes towards gender stereotypes, disregard of female sexuality and consent, and having the most racist portrayal of an Asian character outside of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Anytime Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe) appears on the screen, the sound of a gong is played over the soundtrack and it’s every bit as painful a joke as it sounds.

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A large part of Hughes’ script and direction revels in a filmmaking style and utilisation of tropes that were part and parcel of the genre, and we still haven’t gotten to Weird Science yet. There is the leery way the shower scene involving Caroline (Haviland Morris) is shot; even though it’s meant to be filmed from a female point of view, it feels very male-gazey and gratuitous, and then there’s the character’s treatment by her so-called sensitive boyfriend Jake (Schoeffling) and The Geek (Anthony Michael Hall) in the last third of the film. Jake claims he could violate her “ten ways from Sunday” as she lays passed out drunk, and then proceeds to have The Geek take her home where he promptly has sex with her. The character and the film essentially say it’s all okay and yet we the audience are screaming that it’s not.

Hughes may have done wonders with the sensitive leanings of his characters in The Breakfast Club and the more serious elements in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, not to mention Some Kind of Wonderful, but if any level of affection for Sixteen Candles wasn’t fuelled by nostalgia then it would be confined to the same junk heap where Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds lie.

The moments of sweetness dotted throughout do work, not least when Sam’s dad (Paul Dooley) apologises for forgetting her birthday, while the final scene is as gorgeously shot as they come. But for a film as iconic and seemingly genre-redefining as it was, its legacy is perhaps the most problematic and controversial of the lot.

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