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Retrospective Film Review: John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles

Sunday 15 October 2017

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Words Alice Bell

John Hughes’s 1984 movie Sixteen Candles is a teen cinema staple. But when was the last time you actually saw it?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the film doesn’t bear up quite as well under the weight of the thirty-plus years since its release as do Hughes’s other movies. Let’s discuss…

The movie opens as our leading lady, Samantha Baker, played by Molly Ringwald, contemplates her appearance petulantly in her bedroom mirror.

‘Chronologically, you’re sixteen today,’ she announces to her reflection. ‘But physically? You’re still fifteen.’

After declaring herself ‘hopeless’ to her best friend on the phone, she says goodbye so as to not deprive her family any longer of the opportunity to wish her happy birthday. But what does she find when she descends the stairs?

‘I can’t believe this,’ she exclaims. ‘They fucking forgot my birthday.’ Her sister’s wedding the next day has apparently pushed the date from their minds – what a stone cold bummer.

What follows is one of the high points of the movie for me – a classic John Hughes 80s high school montage. It features all the classics: tube socks, locker trouble, mom jeans, the combing of voluminous hair, more locker trouble, a synth-ridden backing track, some truly terrible sunglasses – and, of course, a thoroughly pouty-looking Molly Ringwald. ‘Everything’s just getting shittier’ she declares – one of the moments in Sixteen Candles that does feel very 2017.


The plot really gets underway when Sam fills out a home-made ‘sex test’ in class, naming senior Jake Ryan as the one guy she would ‘do it’ with given the chance. Unfortunately – or, as it happens, incredibly fortunately – the test goes astray, and Jake himself picks it up.

As Sam and her friend panic over the whereabouts of the test – her friend exclaiming that Jake Ryan ‘doesn’t even know you exist!’ – Jake engages in what I can only describe as the kind of conversation that no girl, ever, wants to be had about her. While doing pull-ups in the gym, he asks his friend what he thinks of her.

‘I don’t,’ the friend replies.

‘She’s not ugly!’ Jake says charitably.

‘There’s nothing there, man,’ says his charming companion. ‘It’s not ugly, it’s just void.’

But Jake is still somewhat smitten (despite being, as we have learned, ‘really taken’) – he says that ‘She looks at me like she’s in love with me,’ and apparently this is enough reason for him to pursue her throughout the rest of the film.

On the bus ride home, Samantha is accosted by a horny freshman called Ted, played by Anthony Michael Hall. Hall’s extreme likeability, put to good use in his later role as Brian in The Breakfast Club, doesn’t quite save him in this film. He drools over Samantha and repeatedly refuses to understand her when she says that she isn’t interested.

The harassment continues at the school dance that evening, where he refers to her to his friends as ‘fully-aged sophomore meat’. To make matters worse, Ted bets his friends that he can gain possession of Samantha’s underwear by the end of the night. Seeing his interaction with Sam, Jake approaches Ted to ask what he knows about her – what a match made in heaven.

Eventually fed up with the day, the dance, and her dopey stalker, Sam flees to the autoshop to sulk and, of course, Ted follows her. There, he attempts to climb atop her not once but twice, but does tell her of Jake’s interest, to her elation. In exchange for the information, Sam makes the frankly poor decision to loan Ted her underwear, which he later charges other boys five dollars each to see in a boys’ bathroom peep show.

Sam is dropped home by Long Duk Dong, the foreign exchange student her grandparents are looking after and who has gone a bit wild at his first American high school dance. He’s even got a girlfriend, commenting that ‘Now I have a place to put my hand’, referring to her breasts, and proving that even the racist caricatures in this movie only speak in degrading aphorisms about women.

Dong then heads to the raging party going on at Jake’s house, thrown by his prom queen girlfriend Caroline. Jake tries to telephone Sam but only gets through to her irate grandparents, who are staying in her room. When a wasted Caroline tries to talk to him – asking, heartbreakingly, ‘Jakey, have you stopped loving me?’ – he tells her to go away and shuts the door on her, trapping a chunk of her hair in the frame. Her equally drunk friends cut her free before she passes out.

Here comes the truly disturbing stretch of the movie that if you have any experience of sexual assault I would honestly recommend passing over.

At the end of the party, his house trashed, Jake finds Ted trapped under his glass coffee table. The two get to talking about Samantha, and Ted, somewhat sweetly, threatens to kick Jake’s ass if he hurts her.

‘I can get a piece of ass any time I want,’ Jake assures him. ‘Shit, I’ve got Caroline in the bedroom right now passed out cold. I could violate her ten different ways if I wanted to.’

Ted responds with a blank look that I initially took for the appropriate reaction of shock and disgust. But, alas, this is Sixteen Candles.

‘What are you waiting for?’ he asks incredulously.

And it doesn’t stop there – in exchange for Samantha’s underwear, Jake offers for Ted to take Caroline home in his father’s car, because ‘She’s so blitzed she won’t know the difference.’ What follows is a long stretch of the movie in which Caroline’s unconscious form is lugged and paraded around, slumped into a Rolls Royce that careens through the streets helmed by a drunk teenager. It’s pretty painful viewing.

The next morning is the morning of Sam’s sister’s wedding. Ted and Caroline wake up in a car park and presume that they had sex the night before, though neither can remember it. Perhaps predictably, Ted’s first question is ‘Did I enjoy it?!’ followed hastily by ‘What I meant was – did you?’

Far more charitably than Ted deserves, Caroline responds that she did, and Jake catches the pair kissing as he drives by. He stops and the couple mutually apologise to each other and decide to break up.

Meanwhile, at the church, the bride is doped up on painkillers because she got her period and is high as a kite. She is frogmarched down the aisle by her father – incidentally, the only likeable man in this whole film. When the ceremony ends, Sam goes back to retrieve her sister’s veil and misses her departure.


As the cars of the other guests pull away, the dejected Sam sees Jake waiting for her on the other side of the street, leaning against his shiny red sports car, having been told where she was by Long Duk Dong. This is the daydream scene – the one that is supposed to make all the shenanigans worth it, the one in which all teen girls with a crush they believe doesn’t know they exist are supposed to see themselves. But I couldn’t help but feel that the dream was somewhat ruined by the fact that Jake Ryan, by all accounts, is a bit of a trash person. Sure, he wants Sam to be his serious girlfriend now – but what happens if he finds out she has interests other than making him the centre of her universe? Will he swap her for a pair of panties belonging to his next ‘serious girlfriend’? If the events of this film are anything to go by, the forecast doesn’t look good.

Look, I know the 80s were a different time. These brazen date-rape vibes just wouldn’t fly today – though the Harvey Weinstein scandal that’s been in the press this week does go to show that women’s bodies are as at risk from assault and harassment as they have ever been.

Sixteen Candles feels like an 80s time capsule, and maybe you have to take the good with the bad. But if you want my advice, skip the film, watch the lovely final scene on YouTube and enjoy Ringwald and Hall in The Breakfast Club instead.