#ThrowbackThursday – Sixteen Candles

Original US release date: May 4, 1984
Production budget: $6,500,000
Worldwide gross: $23,686,027

Not too long ago, I did a #ThrowbackThursday column for John Hughes’s classic film The Breakfast Club.  Though writer-director Hughes had a fairly versatile career within the realm of comedy, he is undoubtedly best known for his high school coming of age films. The Breakfast Club is probably his most highly-regarded, but that was his second film.  Before The Breakfast Club came Sixteen Candles.

This was another classic film that I had never found the time to watch until now.  I really like The Breakfast Club so I was expecting to enjoy Sixteen Candles to a similar degree.  Unfortunately, I didn’t.  Though the film is not without its charms, it’s also not without its flaws – including one particularly troubling narrative misstep that ultimately leaves a permanent sour taste on the tongue of any unsuspecting viewer just looking to have fun for ninety minutes.

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The film follows Samantha (Molly Ringwald) on her sixteenth birthday.  However, the significance of the day is overshadowed by her older sister’s impending wedding and her high school classmates’ general disinterest, causing Samantha to feel invisible and unimportant on the day which she believes should be her most memorable.  When she attends a party at the house belonging to her crush Jake (Michael Schoeffling), she finds herself in for an evening of unexpected surprises with equally unexpected consequences.  And so does the viewer.

So, yeah, this is a coming of age film.  But, as relatively common as coming of age films are today (with Lady Bird being the most recent example), and though this wasn’t the first, it was really Hughes who put the genre on the map with this movie.  So, in looking back on this progenitor after it’s been exerting its influence on the art form for nearly thirty-four years, it’s easy to think, “Well, I’ve seen most of this before.”  Of course, while that technically might be true, the films in which we’ve seen it have all borrowed from this one.  And while some might have done it better (I’m looking at you!), love Sixteen Candles or hate it (and most people still admittedly love it), that much can never be taken away from it.

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And there are aspects of the film deserving of that love.  Most obviously, there’s a reason that Molly Ringwald became a generational icon with only three performances (this one, the aforementioned The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink).  Ringwald did such an excellent job with defining and portraying the ultimate girl next door that her name still gets tossed around today by film and entertainment lovers, having never been forgotten due to only three movies (though many will also recall her from the television adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand).  She’s likable, she’s endearing, she’s charming, and perhaps most importantly, she’s genuine.  It’s easy to understand why so many teenagers in the eighties had a crush on her and how she became the face of a decade.

Also joining Ringwald in both this film and The Breakfast Club is Anthony Michael Hall.  Whereas Ringwald was Hughes’s go-to for the embodiment of a teenage dream girl, Hall was Hughes’s perpetual geek.  Hall also made a name for himself thanks to the two Hughes films, though not to same degree as Ringwald.  And, though Hall played this role well, his subplot is what nearly (and maybe entirely) brings the whole film crashing to the ground.

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Before I get into the major sticking point(s) of the film, I want to state that, when watching older films, one should always keep context in mind.  Times change.  Sensitivities change.  Social expectations change.  And Sixteen Candles is unquestionably a product of its time.  I can imagine that many modern viewers would have an issue with the portrayal of the Chinese exchange student, Long Duck Dong.  I can understand the initial urge to go in that direction, but outside of his ridiculous name (which is too out there to take as any sort of serious statement regarding the Chinese), he really isn’t all that stereotypical.  In fact, virtually every character in the film is a stereotype of some sort: the timid and virtuous girl next door, the geek with loads of unearned self-confidence, the oblivious parents, the meathead jock, the overzealous and out-of-touch grandparents, and on and on.  And all of them are exceedingly more stereotypical than Long Duck Dong.  The stereotypes are themselves mocked through satire and aren’t a big deal if fully understood.

(RARE SPOILER AHEAD!  It’s regrettable, but necessary!)  While some might get caught up in them, anyway, there’s really no cause for it.  However, a serious narrative issue rears its ugly head when Hall’s geek character meets up with Schoeffling’s Jake, the object of Samantha’s affections.  The geek is anxious to gain some sexual experience and Jake is equally anxious to unload his vapid, superficial girlfriend (another stereotype) Caroline onto anyone else.  Jake casually mentions that Caroline is currently passed out drunk and that the geek would be free to have his way with her and she’d never even know the difference, much less be aware enough of who she’s with to reject him.  Jake’s exact words are, “I could violate her ten different ways if I wanted to.”  Yeah, the whole movie took a turn for me, right there.

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Did your jaw just drop?  Mine sure did!  The two of them then actively enact and carry out a plan for the geek to cart Caroline away in Jake’s dad’s car and date rape her.  Or, maybe just rape her, since they weren’t actually on a date.  I kept waiting for the moment that it would hit them – or at least one of them – that this wasn’t okay.  I thought that maybe this would be a coming of age moment for the two male leads, as well, and not only Samantha would grow within the narrative framework of the film.  But it never happens.  In fact, the plan works and then – to top it off – Caroline actually falls for the geek!  And she does so, knowing full well what happened.  I suppose the impact is slightly dulled by the fact that the geek also becomes inebriated and doesn’t remember the act, but only slightly.  He still planned to do it and never faltered.

I can’t chalk that one up to the film being a product of its time because, you know, rape was a thing in the eighties.  I’m not going to claim that Hughes was openly endorsing rape.  Society wasn’t quite as enlightened then as it is now.  But this should have still been a clear no-go as far as being included in a comedy as an acceptable attempted source of humor.  Even if the remainder of the film had been flawless (which it isn’t, but it’s mostly good.  The humor often falls a bit flat.), this alone is enough to spoil the fun of the proceedings.

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The success of Sixteen Candles led to the success of strong talents and better films, so I’m not going to say that I wish it hadn’t been successful.  But I’m glad that we have grown as a society to the point where something this atrociously conceived would never be produced in these times.  Ringwald is great and Hughes shows talent but also a severe lack of awareness and irresponsibility that damages the reputation of this esteemed classic.  I’m not one to jump at every perceived societal slight so, in order for me to be harping on this, it’s got to be big and it’s got to be obtuse.  The film has value as a historical work, but its severe sexist heartlessness can’t be ignored, forgotten, or forgiven.

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