Arrow Video: Sixteen Candles (1984) - Reviewed

One of the greatest film directors of the 1980s, legendary coming-of-age teenage comedy writer-director John Hughes was already making waves in the film community for his screenwriting work on National Lampoon’s Vacation and Mr. Mom before taking a seat in the director’s chair.  Soon to become the undisputed king of the adolescent high school comedy, Mr. Hughes’ first foray into writing as well as directing began with the still impressive and massively popular debut Sixteen Candles.  The announcement of a new and wholly original cinematic voice, Sixteen Candles represented a departure from the usual rude and crude teen sex comedies in favor of fully realized characters and a relatable human story. 

Simultaneously a screwball comedy of errors and a heartwarming mixture of drama and romantic charm, Sixteen Candles follows the plight of Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald in a breakthrough role).  Depressed over her parents forgetting about her Sweet Sixteen birthday while her older sister is getting married, Samantha is a typical teenager fending off dorky freshman Ted (Anthony Michael Hall) while struggling with her crush on popular senior Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling) with blond bombshell Caroline (Haviland Morris) wrapped around his finger. 

Though ostensibly about Samantha, Sixteen Candles also winds up being an ensemble comedy with many cameos and silly comic asides.  Though some gags show their age like exchange student Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe), others like the antics of Ted’s fellow cronies Bryce (John Cusack) and Wease (Darren Harris) remain as funny as ever.  While Hughes’ first effort does tend to follow the trajectory of the teen sex comedies which dominated late 1970s cinema, the approach to the material is endearing, inviting you to laugh with the characters instead of at them.

Characteristic of a Hughes production is the soundtrack featuring many popular artists including but not limited to Frank Sinatra, David Bowie, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Billy Idol.  For years the film on home video experienced rights issues which altered much of the film’s soundtrack choices, a conundrum cleared up around 2003.  Coupled with soon-to-be longtime collaborator Ira Newborn’s electronic score, you can tell your watching a John Hughes film just from the music.  Co-produced by eventual Interscope Records founder Jimmy Iovine, the music to Sixteen Candles, as with Hughes’ forthcoming productions, is inseparable from the film. 

While not as technically proficient as some of Hughes’ later works including the dynamic and slick widescreen vistas of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles for a first-time effort does feature handsome cinematography thanks to industry veteran Bobby Byrne (Smokey and the Bandit).  Despite being the only film lensed for Mr. Hughes, the visual style undoubtedly informed the likes of, say, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused with a colorful visual portrait of the high school setting.

Mostly though, Sixteen Candles is an actor’s piece with crucial casting of newcomers Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall.  Cut from the same cloth, these two misfits don’t necessarily fit in with the rest of the high school group.  In other hands, these would be throwaway characters cast aside for the next gross out sex comedy gag, but here they’re given ample room to reveal themselves as fully fledged characters with human frailties and wishes for happiness.  Special props must be given to Anthony Michael Hall who plays the prepubescent dork believably as a real person rather than a caricature.  It’s this very attention Hughes pays to the character which separates him from the usual pack of teen sex comedy filmmakers.

Made for a meager $6.5 million, the film opened to glowing reviews and became a box office smash, taking in $23 million before becoming a regular staple on syndicated TV.  To this day, like most films from John Hughes, Sixteen Candles remains both immensely popular and a quintessential introduction to the writer-director’s oeuvre.  In what could have been just another teen sex comedy offering a halfhearted distraction, Sixteen Candles genuinely cares about its cast of characters and speaks to a whole generation of socially awkward teenagers still growing up. 

While personally not my favorite Hughes production (that honor goes to Planes, Trains & Automobiles), it’s one Hell of a debut which instantly cemented his status as one of the most important comedy film directors of his time, one whose films are still celebrated and cherished by filmgoers the around the world of all ages.

--Andrew Kotwicki