Molly Ringwald’s exasperated complaint heralded a sea change in the annals of teen movies. The foundation had been laid by the likes of Risky Business and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but it took John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles to really hit the nail on the head. As adults, we can see how comparatively minor Samantha’s (Ringwald) dilemma is. In the midst of preparations for her big sister’s wedding, her family completely overlooks her sixteenth birthday. First World problem, right? Life will somehow carry on. But when you’re that age – with raging hormones and the first terrifying steps into adulthood lying before you – it feels like the end of the world.
Hughes’ coming-of-age comedy deeply sympathizes with that perceived unfairness. But it also realizes that – the grand scheme of things – she’s going to survive more easily than she thinks, and uses the tension to create a terrific comedy. Samantha trudges her way through a grim day in suburban Chicago, pining for the class hunk (Michael Schoeffling) and utterly failing to avoid the unwanted attentions of The Geek (Anthony Michael Hall). This gauntlet of high school nightmares carries its share of surprises, most of them the unpleasant kind but all of them coated with some gentle “this too shall pass” wisdom. Some of Samantha’s woes are self-inflicted, but there’s plenty of indignity to go around, from the grandparents commenting on the emergence of her breasts to an ill-advised loan of her underwear to someone who… well, if you don’t know by now, I don’t want to spoil it.
We laugh because we remember what it was like to be at that age, but also because most of us are standing on the other side of it more or less unharmed. We sympathize, but we can see the ridiculousness for what it is, and when combined with Hughes’ signature observation of high school drudgery, it turns into something quite special. You rarely saw that kind of identification in previous teen stories, clouded by adult perceptions that misunderstood how things looked at that age.
It’s harder to recognize what a big deal that was after Hughes put his stamp on teen movies of the era, and in the process squelched some of the risible fare that had come before. Raunch was in in the early 80s, fed by the likes of Porky’s which seemed to view teenage thoughts on sex as a holy talisman rather than a foolish misperception. Sixteen Candles takes a much more mature view of sexuality, unvarnished by misogyny and – like everything else – smiling quietly at the combination of bravado, confusion and desperation that really accompanied sex at that age. (That doesn’t excuse the intrusion of some rather nasty stereotypes, however, notably the walking shame factory that is Long Duk Dong.)
As I said, there’s enough embarrassment to go around, and as the worm slowly turns on Samantha’s terrible, horrible no-good very bad day, we start to see some shades of redemption. Thanks to Hughes’ careful screenwriting, there’s nothing arbitrary or mechanistic about each new development. They fit right in with their creator’s view on high school, and provide some much needed relief without pandering to any arbitrary happy endings.
Sixteen Candles was definitely a product of its era, from the fashion of excess to the Spandau Ballet and Oingo Boingo on the soundtrack. But high school is high school no matter what the date, and Hughes ensures that the constancies of that age remain unchanged. In the process, he helped define adolescence for an entire generation of filmgoers, some of whom grew up to start making teen movies of their own. We never quite share Samantha’s self-seriousness, but we’ve all been where she is. Hughes ensures that the trip down memory lane makes us giggle and cringe in equal measures. We know it’s going to get better, just like Samantha probably does. But the road through it all has a lot of well-placed banana peels, only a small number of which she’s going to see. We call that growing up: a heartbreakingly funny process that this movie understands all too well.