“I understood that the dark side of my middle-class, middle-American, suburban life was not drugs, paganism, or perversion. It was disappointment. There were no gnawing insects beneath the grass. Only dirt. I also knew that trapped inside every defeat is a small victory, and inside that small victory is the great defeat.” – John Hughes “Vacation ‘58/Foreword ‘08” Zeotrope All Story 12 Number 2 Summer 2008
“I have loved movies, but I had never seen on-screen something that looked so nearly like my life.” – Michael Gross, New York Times, Sixteen Candles May 4th, 1984
Coming hot on the heels of the 1983 one-two punch of Mr. Mom and National Lampoon’s Vacation, each of which was released within one week of each other and grossing over $100 million worldwide each, John Hughes was almost overnight anointed as the hottest new writer in Hollywood. This boded well for Hughes’ directorial effort, the Molly Ringwald starring Sixteen Candles. Unfortunately, upon its release on May 4th 1984 Sixteen Candles was lucky to break even at the box office, losing its opening weekend quite badly to the breakdancing classic Breakin’. Audiences were not yet prepared for Hughes’ style of teenage angst and wouldn’t be ready until after the formal formation of the Brat Pack later that summer upon the release of Joel Schumacher’s St. Elmo’s Fire. Critics, and most film fans, are quick to point out that box office numbers mean nothing in this case since Sixteen Candles is by far a superior movie, showing up on numerous critics’ top ten lists by the end of the year.
Ringwald stars as Samantha Baker, a teenager still going through the pains of growing up, who is fretting over the fact that her own family has forgotten about her sixteenth birthday. Samantha’s family has instead been focusing all of their attention on her sister’s birthday and a foreign exchange student by the infamous name of Long Duk Dong (Gedde Wantanabe). Having been spurned by her family, Samantha finds solace in her daydreams, crushing quite hard on the good looking jock Jake Ryan (former GQ cover model and current upstate New York carpenter Michael Schoeffling) who was the rare example of an early 80s jock that was actually kind and sensitive. Meanwhile, a geeky young man known simply as The Geek (Anthony Michael Hall) pines for Samantha much to her own chagrin. Much like Jake Ryan, The Geek isn’t what he appears to be, either. The Geek (sometimes referred to as Farmer Ted) is certainly nerdy, but he also has a cockiness and confidence that most of these characters forego for the sake of cheap laughs and easy punchlines. Those characters are still here, however, and one of them just happens to be played by John Cusack.
Ringwald and Michael Hall became Hughes’ muses early on his career and it is easy to see why. Both can play teenagers quite effortlessly and are tuned into the kind of dialog that Hughes is best known for. Hughes was always kind of the David Mamet of the teenage set, and while Sixteen Candles was made at the point in his career where his directing might have needed a little work, the writing was second to none. Sixteen Candles is pure farce, but with a real loving heart and a sense of earnestness that isn’t maudlin because it feels so genuine. Sixteen Candles is a film that for some people can be so close to their own personal experiences that it is downright frightening. Also, despite the somewhat dated look, the plot holds up just as well today as it did over 25 years ago. Some things never change. Especially the classics