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Sixteen Candles:

The Breakthrough

Sixteen Candles (1984) Starring Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Paul Dooley, and Michael Schoeffling. Written and directed by John Hughes.

To fully appreciate Sixteen Candles, John Hughes's directorial debut, one must understand what films were like before the Hughes Revolution.

In the late 70s and early 80s, films for youth were pervasive, but sympathy for youth was scarce. Most films about teenagers were either slasher films or sex-comedies. Both were designed to exploit and to nurture a desire to see youth hurt. Sex-comedies generally focused on watching teenagers get deeply humiliated. They worked to produce in the audience a reaction that novelist Joyce Carol Oates described well in Foxfire: "an angry sort of gratitude" "thinking Thank God, not me! She's crying not me!"

Sixteen Candles DVD
Sixteen Candles was a breakthrough, a film that finally offered sympathy to youth.

In many ways, this comedy is similar to the sex-comedies of the time. It offers many of the same clichés. A horny virgin is on a mission to get laid. A teenager behind the wheel of an expensive car will crash it. Teenagers at a house party will destroy the house. We even get a gratuitous boob-shot.

But while the other sex-comedies asked us to laugh at teenagers and feel assured that we were better than them, Sixteen Candles asked us to laugh with the teenagers, recognizing with relief that we are not alone and that it's okay to feel awkward.

This is a film without villains. We are not asked to root against anyone. By the end of the film, every character has our sympathy, even characters we wouldn't expect. The exchange student named Long Duk Dong, for example, is introduced as a racist joke. Hughes emphasizes Dong as an Other, accompanying every shot of Dong with Chinese music or a gong. Yet by the end of the film, even "the Donger" has grown on the audience and we laugh with him rather than at him.

Another way Sixteen Candles differed from the sex-comedies: it was not focused on sex. Porky's, etc. portrayed teenagers as base, focused only on the physical. While Sixteen Candles acknowledges teenagers' sexuality, it also acknowledges their deeper emotions. As Hughes himself later put it, "Most of my characters are romantic rather than sexual. I think that's an essential difference in my pictures. I think they are more accurate in portraying young people as romantic — as wanting a relationship, an understanding, with a member of the opposite sex more than physical sex." (1)

Hearts in Motion

The plot is simple. Molly Ringwald (Pretty in Pink, For Keeps) crushes on a handsome classmate (Michael Schoeffling) while being pursued in turn by the school's top geek, Anthony Michael Hall (The Breakfast Club, The Dark Knight).

  Anthony Michael Hall bonds with Molly Ringwald
 
Hall and Ringwald connect
The film's most cherished scene comes about a half-hour into the film. Ringwald and Hall find themselves alone in the school's auto shop. The geek and the girl he bet his friends he would nail before the end of the night just sit together and have a heart-to-heart talk. They share their secret burdens. They have a few laughs. And they bond. He comes to see her as more than a sex-object, and she finds herself reflected in this awkward guy with no hope of winning the lover he wants.

This was perhaps the first time Hollywood had ever shown teenagers having a heart-to-heart talk. Hollywood at the time assumed teenagers had no hearts, just hormones. Hughes knew better. The auto shop scene is only the first of several heart-to-hearts in Sixteen Candles.

Anthony Michael Hall with Michael Schoeffling  
Hall assures Schoeffling
 
We later get a touching scene where Hall and Schoeffling chat alone. The popular guy reveals he's every bit as insecure as everyone else; more insecure, in fact, than the geek who has all the boldness of one with nothing to lose. Schoeffling reveals that, while he already has a sexy girlfriend who makes him the envy of his buddies, he would rather have someone sensitive. Hall shows that he cares greatly for Ringwald, even though now, as her new friend, he roots for her to get the guy she wants.

We also get a surprising scene between Ringwald and her father (Paul Dooley). He apologizes for forgetting her birthday, and she shares her romantic frustrations.

We get a scene where Schoeffling and his girlfriend officially break up while doing some soul-searching. We get a touching scene between Hall and the chick who finally deflowers him. And there are more.

Scenes like these can only be crafted with the hard work and thoughtfulness of a talented screenwriter. Hollywood had thought teenaged audiences unworthy of that effort. Hughes thought otherwise, and these heart-to-heart talk scenes would become his hallmark. The Breakfast Club is built around such scenes. Even the zany, over the top, and (for a Hughes movie) surprisingly superficial film Weird Science includes a few such scenes.

Downside

For all its greatness, the film is not without its ageist shortcomings. Chief among them, Hughes pushes the view that, for teenagers, dating older is the same as dating up. Hall is a freshman, chasing after Ringwald, a sophomore, who in turn wants Schoeffling, a senior. When Ringwald appraises Schoeffling's girlfriend, she concludes the beauty "must have flunked nine times" to still be in high school. (This cliché is repeated in other Hughes films, such as Weird Science where a 15-year-old protagonist actually brags about dating "a 23-year-old woman" as if this made him superior to those who must settle for dates their own age.) And when Hall wants to impress a chick, he tells her he shaves, as if this would make him better than someone who doesn't.

While some view Sixteen Candles as a chick-flick, it also suffers from sexism. When Schoeffling decides to dump his hot girlfriend and pursue Ringwald, he gives his girlfriend to Hall in return for Hall doing him a favor. When I say "gives his girlfriend," I'm being literal: the girlfriend is passed out drunk when Schoeffling agrees to let the geek take her home. Feminists often complain of women being treated like chattel, but rarely has the problem been so blatant.

Bottom Line: Quality

For all its shortcomings, Sixteen Candles remains an enduring classic. It offers some big laughs and some moving moments. Molly Ringwald gives a dynamite performance and the entire cast shines under Hughes's direction. When it was released, Sixteen Candles got mixed reviews from middle-aged critics, but the critics of today who got to see this film while young themselves recognize this as a very good film.

DVD Warning

Beware. The Sixteen Candles DVD that is part of Universal's "High School Reunion Collection" not only has no extras whatsoever (Really, Universal? You couldn't even throw in the original trailer?) but it also forces you to sit through over three minutes of commercials before you can watch the film. You cannot fast forward or jump to the menu. Boy, does Universal hate Hughes fans!

See also:

Sources

1.
"Molly Ringwald Interviews Hit Filmmaker John Hughes." Seventeen magazine, March 1986. Reprinted online at http://www.riverblue.com/hughes/articles/molly17.html