One of the stable of 1980s John Hughes movies, Sixteen Candles features Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall just a year before they were in an even bigger Hughes film, The Breakfast Club. Ringwald plays Samantha Baker, a high school student in white yuppie suburbia who is celebrating her sixteenth birthday. Or rather, not celebrating it. She would like to be, but her older sister is getting married the next day, and in all the commotion her family appears to have completely forgotten about Samantha.
Throw in a crush she mistakenly thinks doesn’t know she exists, and a geek who she wishes didn’t exist, and she’s got enough trouble for one day.
Schools would allow students to call in aggravated, but then nobody would ever show up.
One of the more common issues with teen movies is a slight degree of unbelievability thanks to the stars not actually being teenagers (in raunchier films, this is often to avoid legal issues, but it carries over to tamer films as well.) Sixteen Candles mostly avoids this, as Molly Ringwald was in fact 16 at the time of the film’s release. Her mannerisms and expressions are believable teenager traits as, instead of a competent actress playing a teenager, she’s a competent actress who is a teenager. Anthony Michael Hall was the same age, which actually meant he was a year older than his freshman character, but of course is just as natural in the film… or at least as natural as any Hollywood geek character can be. His character actually has a name, Ted, but he’s credited everywhere simply as “The Geek”. He’s a little unbelievable simply due to the typical Hollywood insistence on making characters superhumanly awkward, but most of this is reserved for his even-geekier friends; as he puts it, he’s “king of the dipshits”. Awkward, but not egregiously so. Also worth noting is that he isn’t presented as a super-brain; he’s just a socially inept kid.
There are a couple non-teen teenagers in the film, though. Michael Schoeffling, half again Ringwald’s age, plays her senior-class crush, and Haviland Morris, a year older yet, plays his shallow girlfriend. The dialogue pokes a little fun at this when Ringwald’s character remarks that “Caroline Mumford had to flunk about nine grades”. The difference in age is a little obvious next to the actual teenagers, but easily glossed over. There is also Gedde Watanabe, who plays foreign exchange student Long Duk Dong. Dong is an interesting character, in that he is almost purely for comic relief in a film that is already a comedy; other than one line near the end where he tells Schoeffling’s character where to find Samantha, he doesn’t impact the story in any way, but he provides a few good laughs with his antics. I’ve seen a few comments elsewhere that view Dong’s portrayal as racist due to its strictly-comedic usage, but I feel the film isn’t saying “Chinese people are wacky”, it’s just saying “Long Duk Dong is wacky.” Of course, some of the characters comments regarding him are mildly racist, but it’s presented in such as a way as to indicate the audience is supposed to laugh at their cluelessness.
The film itself balances the comedy and the drama of Samantha’s increasingly-frustrating birthday. It makes it easy to feel sorry for her while also laughing at the mild absurdity of the situations she finds herself in. A large part of this is due to the writing and performances of Ringwald and Hall; where some films would have them as two-dimensional characters, centered entirely around their mopiness and geekiness, here they are more developed and realistic. Those traits are depicted as aspects of their personalities, not the entirety of them.
The one disappointment of the film, and it’s a mild one, is that the humor isn’t quite up to Hughes’ usual standards. There are several times where it seems like Hughes is just going for the easy gag, particularly with the relatively flat portrayal of the secondary and tertiary characters. Not that one expects a great deal of well-roundedness from those characters, but there were a few times when it felt like Hughes had penciled in “Standard Grandpa Joke” or “Standard Yuppie Obliviousness.” However, there are still several points where Hughes delivers, most often involving Hall and Schoeffield’s interactions, such as freshman geek Ted giving senior jock Jake a pep talk on understanding women.
While not a perfect film, it’s an entertaining one, and it’s easy to see why it’s still remembered all these years later, even as a second-tier John Hughes film. Everybody has felt neglected at some point, even if not on their birthday, and high school is virtually the last universal experience for Westerners (most everybody works, but work is too varied for any particular job to be called a universal experience.) It’s relatable, and it’s funny at the same time. And though it was released 30 years ago, it remains relevant through an almost complete absence of anything that might date it.