Sixteen Candles (1984)

It’s always a bit weird to watch a film for a younger target audience when you, yourself, have outgrown said audience. I’m an animation fan, so I’m used to ignoring moments clearly only meant for the kiddies so I can enjoy a film on more mature grounds. It’s why I generally prefer classic Disney and Pixar over everything else in the artform, because they tend to do less of that sort of pandering and focus more on timeless and all-ages story, characters and themes.

The same should hold true for teenage comedies, but doesn’t. I suppose socialisation makes a difference. Unlike animation, I was never really into this type of film, learning about their plots and tropes primarily through cultural osmosis. When I watch one of these beloved movies today, as an adult and for the first time, the cringeworthy elements linger much longer and can’t be as easily shrugged off.

Take Sixteen Candles, John Hughes’ directorial debut. I know it as one of the quintessential classic teen movies because other people vaguely my age who grew up with it have steadfastly declared it to be so. It’s certainly well shot and edited, with good acting and fluid pacing. But the central plot is pretty standard: A shy girl (Samantha) loves a rich jock (Jake); the jock secretly likes her, too, but is already in a relationship; and a geeky boy (Ted) awkwardly tries to get into the girl’s pants (or any girl’s, really). There are mistakes and misconceptions, but in the end, there’s a harmonious resolution for everyone involved.

The fact that Samantha’s attraction to Jake is all surface, and his returned affection seems to have even less of a basis in knowing her actual personality, may well be par for the course for a movie like this. It may also be something teenagers, confused by hormones and drawn to the simple concept of instant romance, can relate to. But to a grown-up, this part of the film just seems to go through the motions without really giving the audience a reason to root for Sam and Jake to be together other than their furtive glances telling us it must be so. Molly Ringwald’s performance is good, but can’t do much about the script, which calls for Sam spending much of the film sulking and passively pining. Her reason for the former – her parents forgot her sixteenth birthday – provides a solid emotional payoff late in the film, but I can’t help but think that Sam could have been more fleshed out than she was.

—Let’s ditch this section and go to the spoiler party—

I’m not sure whether to praise or fault the film for the fact that its three protagonists aren’t perfect human beings, and in fact behave pretty badly at times. The reason for my uncertainty is that I don’t know how, exactly, the film wants us to take elements like:

  • Ted aggressively coming on to Samantha, openly bragging to his friends about his (fictitious) conquest of her, and, later, taking advantage of a drunk partygoer and driving while intoxicated; and
  • Sam’s dream boy Jake treating his girlfriend rather shoddily once he gains an interest in Sam, even basically inviting Ted to have his way with her while she’s passed out Jake’s house.

Hughes gives both boys motivations for what they’re doing — Ted has an undeserved reputation, at least among his geek friends, as a womaniser, but doesn’t really know the first thing about asking a girl out; Jake’s life has everything except a “serious” girlfriend, a role he somehow thinks Sam can fulfill. They’re teenagers, they say and do stupid things (the repeated use of gay and disabled slurs as standard insults, for example, is probably a fairly true-to-life portrayal of the way young people talked 30 years ago). Still, the way their treatment of and conversations about women are played off as harmless of even for laughs instead of creepy and dangerous is troubling, whether it’s meant to be realistic or not.

There are similar sour notes at the margins of the story. Samantha’s sister is getting married, but her period comes early. Also, her husband-to-be is a smarmy ass whose loutish family consists of Italian mafia stereotypes (except with a vaguely Eastern european colour). One of Sam’s grandparents bring an Asian exchange student who can’t seem to decide which country he comes from to the wedding whose appearance and accent must have been highly stereotypical and kind of offensive even in 1984. These parts of the film indulge in a humour so broad and which falls just as flat as horse droppings left on a busy road. A girl in a neckbrace is also made fun of repeatedly, which is just mean for no reason.

(Speaking of sour notes, the movie’s soundscape deserves special dishonourable mention. The score has a highly annoying tendency to quote from well-known themes (like The Godfather and The Twilight Zone). What’s meant as amusing just comes across as the live-action equivalent of Family Guy-style “it’s funny solely because we referenced something you already know” “humour”. There are also numerous silly sound effects peppered throughout the film, most notably a clichéd gong when the Asian student appears or is mentioned.)

In the end, Sixteen Candles is watchable, but if it’s elevated above other films of this genre, then only by not being quite as pandering and horrible.

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