Sixteen Candles (1984)


John Hughes’ first film as writer and director has both aged really well and terribly. The good stuff: Hughes’ knack for 80s teenage vernacular is still wonderful. Obviously teens didn’t really talk like Hughes wrote them, but as a stylised appropriation you couldn’t ask for anything better. Sharp, insightful with just the right amount of snark. The moments of insular discussion still feel revolutionary (and would be promoted from shading to the foreground in the following year’s The Breakfast Club) and even though it paved the way for decades of more intelligent teen flicks, no-one has ever really come close to establishing a voice as distinct as Hughes’.

The fact Sixteen Candles looks and feels so 1984 also works in its favour. Look at that title sequence set against images of teens walking into school: the emphasis on their clothes, their shoes, the hairstyles. It feels like the kind of thing a teen movie set the 80s released today would do. Hughes was ahead of the curve. He wasn’t afraid of being contemporary and putting a pin in his own day and age instead of trying to look forwards or backwards. He was regarded as one of the quintessential 80s filmmakers for a reason: he made movies about the 80s.

It’s really well cast too. Molly Ringwald had a look and cadence all of her own. There’s still, to this day, never been a teen icon quite like her. This really is a lovely, star-making performance and it doesn’t surprise me to learn Sixteen Candles was essentially written by Hughes following a sudden burst of inspiration after seeing Ringwald’s headshot. Anthony Michael Hall is fucking great too. As the Geek (maybe the best version of that stereotype ever?) he is so strange and unique. The scene he shares with Ringwald in the shop class during the dance remains a highlight of Hughes’ career and really the primer for everything he would become known for. Teenagers rarely let their guard down and talked like that in movies before Sixteen Candles and the scene still feels like a rug being pulled out from under you.

And the bad stuff. Well, Long Duk Dong. What the fuck were they thinking? Didn’t Hollywood learn anything after Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? There’s also some implicit date rape humour that sits uneasily when watched today. You can definitely attribute both these things to the trends and attitudes of the day (and Hughes was always pretty useless when it came to depicting anything other than white American middle/upper class) but it doesn’t erase them. They’re quite the tarnish on an otherwise lovely film.

What else? Oh yeah. The male “hunk” Michael Schoeffling is about as dynamic as a fucking wet napkin. The fact so much of the film hinges on a potential romance between him and Ringwald (who is like a shooting star in comparison) makes it even harder to swallow. Imagine this movie with a young Matt Dillon or Rob Lowe instead and the movie immediately improves. There’s also some dumb lewd humour that was never Hughes’ strong point. The insert of a pair of tits feels like an obligatory holdover from his National Lampoon days and sticks out like a sore thumb in a movie that otherwise has more of an intelligent head on its shoulders. He’d exorcise most of this out of his system with Weird Science but here it lingers.

Overall I’m still really fond of Sixteen Candles. As a big Hughes fan I have a soft spot for this movie because it establishes so many things he would go on to be known for: the savvy teens, Chicago setting, the introspective shadings, the killer soundtrack as well as an eye for some excellent visual gags. The presence of Ringwald and Hall at their most fresh-faced is also gigantic. The last time I saw this was many, many years ago but I found myself eagerly anticipating many lines and sequences as if no time had passed at all. I also found myself dreading certain things (like a gong sound effect *sigh*) but even those are a vivid reminders that for everything great about the eighties (like John Hughes for one), some things also really sucked.

Watched on blu-ray.

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