Serious problems in a small town.
Sam Baker (Molly Ringwald) awakes on her sixteenth birthday, disappointed to discover she hasn’t yet transformed into a busty sexpot. She’s willing to settle for presents and cake, but discovers to her annoyance that her family has forgotten her birthday. School doesn’t improve the situation. Sam is in love with Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling), the hunky jock, and she’s under attack by geeky Farmer Ted (Anthony Michael Hall), who needs her panties in order to win a bet. Coincidentally, Sam’s birthday falls on the date of the Big Dance, where she makes eye contact with Jake while dancing with Ted. Humiliated, Sam escapes for home, but Ted confesses Sam’s secret to Jake, and the hunk decides to find her. When he does, Sam and Jake share a belated birthday kiss. Also, Farmer Ted date-rapes the prom queen.
When it came to writing, John Hughes was kind of like a superhero, or some legendary gunslinger who could shoot five bank robbers with just one bullet. Except, instead of bank robbers, John Hughes wrote screenplays, and instead of shooting bullets, he just wrote them really, really fast. The most famous story about Hughes and his writing, true or not, is how he wrote the screenplay for Sixteen Candles. Hughes had supposedly been given the approval to see actors for The Breakfast Club, the movie that was meant to be his directorial debut, but when going through headshots, he ran across a picture of young Molly Ringwald. Taken by her awkward, All-American good looks, he supposedly pinned her picture above his typewriter and started writing, and the result was this film. There’s some holes in the story—a few sources suggest that the script was already in the studio’s hands and that Hughes was doing a rewrite—but it stuck, which is why Ringwald is still referred to today as Hughes’s muse.
The music-crazy Hughes crammed his debut film with something like 30 songs, a shotgun blast at the teen zeitgeist that included tracks from the likes of Wham!, David Bowie, Billy Idol, AC/DC, The Specials, and Oingo Boingo. Oddly, only five of these (really, just five songs) made it to the official soundtrack release, including the Stray Cats’s cover of the title song. Despite being too short and way lame, the soundtrack is still an out-of-print collector’s item. As of this writing, Amazon.com has four used copies, each in the $40 range, or $8 a song.
The pop-culture machine we call Sixteen Candles is powered by the Nietzschian ubermensch of all Hughes movie misfits and the inspiration for this category: The Geek (or Farmer Ted, as he calls himself in the film.) 1984 was a big year for the Hollywood nerd (Revenge of the Nerds was a monster success), and Anthony Michael Hall—a nobody before this film and a mascot for all 80s teen cinema after it—earns points for avoiding comic- or tech-nerd cliche. Actually, thumbs-up goes to Hughes’s script as well, which allows Ted to be what most nerds truly are: like everyone else, just terrible at it. Ted is as sex-crazed as his popular peers, but is simply wired the wrong way to do anything about it. Way more than the bland, questionably-motivated Jake Ryan (see below), Ted is the male lead and the heart of the film, and Hall has spent much of his acting career trying to escape from this skinny kid’s huge shadow.
The final shot is the famous birthday cake kiss, with Jake leaning over to smooch Sam in the candlelight while asking her to make a wish. Sappy, but memorable.
I’ve danced around my central problem with Sixteen Candles since the opening paragraph, so please forgive me if I put it off for just a while longer. I’ve ranked the film as the fourth best on this list, and I don’t think it deserves me opening on its faults. After all, Sixteen Candles was a cultural smart bomb when it was released, so tightly constructed and specifically targeted that its impact is still rippling in modern teen flicks. Wherever there’s a group of horny losers desperate to get laid, wherever the Big Dance is just the prelude for a killer after-party, wherever parents just don’t understand, Sixteen Candles is there.
Like any template, the value in Sixteen Candles derives from its all-purpose blankness. The film sketches broad outlines, but we color it with our own adolescence. Sam Baker is a heroine for just such an empty place, a girl who is less a real person than she is a sounding board for hardwired adolescent impatience, which is why every teenager in ‘84 thought the film was about them. Sam’s high school is generic enough to be anywhere (Skokie is a town built to franchise), and every teenager who sees her relates to her central dilemma: as teens, we all had one unattainable object of desire, and we all suffered one unwanted advance because we, sadly, were somebody else’s unattainable object of desire. The film succeeds and endures because it’s the every-teen adventure, a hero’s journey that exists just before that damned call to adventure, where the hero begins the story waiting to arrive and ends the story still waiting, but one satisfying step closer. Sam and Jake will break up over the summer, but Sam learned that her dreams are attainable, she is attractive, and she can make it on her own. The real adventure can begin. This is the staple storyline of the coming-of-age film, and it purrs here. No wonder Hughes became the Hollywood “it” guy. Give the man two days and a Molly Ringwald head shot and he can spin manna from 20 lb. paper and make every American teen want to school in middle Illinois, despite Sam’s high school being, quite possibly, the worst in the world.
Now, let me ask you, what exactly is going on with the teenage boys in Shermer? In my post on Weird Science, I suggested that there was a time and a place to discover Weird Science and love it forever. The same may be true of Sixteen Candles, but that time and place is one that I didn’t even know existed, a time where date rape was a character quirk and women could be traded for underpants. As I watched the film again recently, I kept waiting for Jake Ryan to earn his heartthrob status and prove to Sam that chivalry was not dead. He never fails to disappoint:
- He shows no interest in Sam until he accidentally intercepts a sex quiz she filled out in home room confessing that she’d like to “do it” with him.
- He asks his 40-ish jock buddy about her and the guy can only talk about her value as a sex partner. Jake doesn’t really have a counter-argument.
- The following line about his girlfriend: “I’ve got Caroline in the bedroom right now, passed out cold. I could violate her ten different ways if I wanted to.”
- The fact that, fully aware of her condition as you can see above, he literally trades Caroline to Farmer Ted in exchange for Sam’s underwear.
- He never gives Sam back her underwear.
- Again: We have no idea why he wants the underwear, and it’s never seen again.
Jake isn’t alone. It seems this kind of thing happens all the time. Farmer Ted—already an “endearing” sex fiend who asks nicely for Sam’s underpants to win a bet, but then improvises by selling peeks to the entire nerd flock—drives the blitzed Caroline over to his buddy John Cusack’s house to get pictures of her draped all over him. Keep in mind that she’s unconscious and he’s completely sober. The next morning, Caroline and Ted wake up in a parking lot with the vague memory that they had sex. The memory lapse makes sense for Caroline because, again, drunk. But Farmer Ted? I can’t stress this enough. We never see him drink. Despite the very real possibility that Farmer Ted has committed a few felonies on her person, Caroline inexplicably falls in love with him. Yup, Sixteen Candles and Crank: Two movies that prove that if you just rape someone enough, they’ll love you for it.
(Note: I didn’t really mention Long Duk Dong, the foreign exchange student played by Gedde Watanabe. Dong—both the character and the pun on Chinese names—is considered to be one of the movie’s most glaring embarrassments. For the record, I don’t really have an opinion. Is it offensive? Probably. Have I seen worse? Definitely. Does that excuse it? Not really, but what can be said? It was the 80s. It was a weird fucking decade. At least the character was played by an actual Asian-American, not Mickey Rooney.)
The John Hughes Project
4. Sixteen Candles
6. Uncle Buck
8. Curly Sue