For his directorial unveiling, John Hughes selected a piece of material held close to his heart; a screenplay that contained beloved topics: the chaos of the nuclear family and the humiliation/redemption of the average American teen. “Sixteen Candles” is largely Hughes testing his gifts behind the camera, inadvertently pioneering a genre that would come to define his career. It’s a rough sketch of future triumphs, but “Candles” is a brazenly mischievous, consistently uproarious comedy that christens the devastating Hughes-fu with vivacious results.Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) has finally turned 16, with all the promise of pubescent growth that accompanies the landmark age, and nobody has noticed. With Samantha’s extended family trying to marry off her older sister, the lonely teen turns her attentions to school crush and popular stud Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling), who appears to return the interest, much to her horror. Caught in the middle is geek Farmer Ted (Anthony Michael Hall), a freshman with designs on Samantha, but also fears the senior wrath of Jake. When the night brings a blow-out party, Farmer Ted and Jake join forces to locate Samantha, while the perturbed teen tries to make the most of a crucial birthday that no one bothered to celebrate.
"The John Hughes legacy begins"
Bringing a multi-flavored wit honed at the offices of the National Lampoon, and working off the success of his 1983 screenwriting effort, the incomparable “Vacation,” John Hughes accepted the offer of prestigious feature-film direction duties with utmost seriousness. Perhaps this is why “Sixteen Candles” has a certain fearlessness about it that could only emerge from a newcomer ready to please and unable to discern industry limits.
While hardly a revolutionary screenplay, “Candles” is nevertheless a work of unparalleled comic generosity, merging customary teen hijinks with a newfound sense of timing, character depth, and concentrated group effort. Hughes writes for the rafters, creating a barnstorming effort for his first film that mixes slapstick with truthful teen attitude, rather confidently introducing a sharp edge to the genre that brings the Clearasil crowd to light in a rewarding manner. Hughes refuses to entertain cliché, instead turning every character into a small cradle of authenticity, either in a directly comic fashion or through evocative adolescent impediment. “Sixteen Candles” brings on the laughs in impressive fashion, but Hughes cares about these characters as he brusquely shakes them down for laughs. It’s an intoxicating equilibrium that the filmmaker would explore to even greater satisfaction as the decade wore on.
Hughes’s eye for casting is also a miracle that produces a movie with atypical encouragement. As the central image of self-conscious, gawky teendom, Ringwald’s portrayal of Samantha’s superficial suffering during this high tide of romantic entanglements and prized breast development (or lack thereof) sets the gold standard for slack-jawed youthful performances. There’s never a moment where the audience doesn’t believe Samantha’s horror as her day goes from bad to worse. While a teen herself during filming, Ringwald conveys the ideal level of angst, facing down a family that’s ignored her, a love interest she can’t even talk to, and a geek who wants to rent her panties out to avoid paying off a hefty floppy disk wager. Ringwald sells the bejesus out of the role, and Hughes uses her pubescent discomfort to backdrop the film’s more robust sequences of indignity.
Truthfully, “Candles” is teeming with outstanding work from the entire troupe, with the possible exception of Schoeffling. Oh, I get the whole “dreamboat” attributes of the actor, but the character is a complete sleaze (casually chatting up how he could “violate” his inebriated girlfriend to Farmer Ted), and Schoeffling is visibly half-asleep during his performance. Mercifully, Hughes fills the rest of the cast out with amazingly game talent, from the infamous Chinese exchange student Long Duk Dong (an adorable Gedde Watanabe) to Samantha’s alternately over-protective and pervy grandparents (Billie Bird, Edward Andrews, Carole Cook, and Max Showalter), who run off with the film with the little screentime they’re permitted.
Of course, there’s Anthony Michael Hall as the Gandalf of the geeks, the lecherous Farmer Ted. If my black magic skills were up to snuff, I would plop Hall into a Ziploc bag at this pristine age and hold onto him forever. Certainly the actor found stronger roles with Hughes as time wore on, but he was never quite as fresh, convincingly clumsy, and as easily led as he was in “Candles.” Hall knocks every scene out of the park with his fluid timing and general embryonic appearance. He’s a memorable orthodontics-enhanced thorn for the film to abuse as Hughes sees fit.In “Sixteen Candles,” John Hughes made the high school experience relevant again, resuscitating the horror of forced social functions such as the dreaded afternoon bus ride or evening dance. In 1984, it restored some dignity to teen cinema, bringing along needed playfulness. In 2008, the sensations still resonate, with renewed appreciation for the exceptional performances, a crackerjack soundtrack of ‘80s pop hits (if there’s Thompson Twins, there’s Brian with a smile), and the universal concept of a teenager melting down on the most important day of her life.
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originally posted: 09/07/08 14:37:00