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What To Watch: Understanding Sam in ‘Sixteen Candles’ (1984)

There's a reason this film is as enduring as it is.

Sixteen Candles is a 1984 coming-of-age film about girl trying to cope with a series of setbacks that seem to test her very will to keep going, all the while desperate for a certain boy just to notice her.

It might seem a strange place to start when talking about Sixteen Candles, the breakout film of actress Molly Ringwald, but let’s start with The Lord of the Rings. More specifically Aragorn, the Ranger of the North, who came to be a member of the Fellowship striving to rid Middle Earth of the scourge of evil sweeping the land. He was played by Viggo Mortensen, the rogue-ish, chiseled-chin actor who, if things had gone a different way, might have gotten his big break more than a decade earlier if he wasn’t beaten out for the lead male role in Sixteen Candles by the now famously reclusive rogue-ish, chiseled-chin actor Michael Schoeffling. You’re picturing that in your mind. A guy with a sword looming over a birthday cake. It’s just not working, is it? Totally get that.

Sixteen Candles
(L) Viggo Mortensen, 2000 © New Line Cinema (R) Michael Schoeffling, 1984 © Channel Productions

Either way, the classic comedy made a superstar out Ringwald and a household name out of her other co-star, Anthony Michael Hall, who played ‘Farmer Ted’, the dweeby boy with a big ego and even more charms (and breath mints). The film struck a positive nerve with theater-goers and continues to earn high praise for its comedic but respectful examination of life at this crucial stage, and especially for giving great warmth and strength to the lead, a significant departure from many teen genre films that did (and still do) little than compartmentalize girls into specific, often unredeeming roles to satisfy the male gaze.

Sixteen Candles
Sixteen Candles, 1984 © Channel Productions

THE STORY: Written and directed by John Hughes, the story follows Samantha “Sam” Baker (Ringwald) on her sixteenth birthday, a day that seems to have left her slipping through the cracks as her entire family has forgotten it, utterly distracted by Sam’s older sister Ginny’s (Blanche Baker) wedding, coming the next day. Worse, in school, Sam learns a secret sex quiz she sent to her friend (on paper – this is well before smartphones) got leaked, the note harboring some damning information, such as her crush on a boy named Jake (Schoeffling) and her admission to being a virgin.

Meanwhile, we meet Farmer Ted, a freshman with a posse of nerds who makes bets that he will score with Sam, an endeavor that pretty much backfires with every attempt, though a deal is struck at a low point that involves Sam’s panties and a bathroom full of curious, money-paying boys prompting one of the more surreal moments in the movie.

Sixteen Candles
Sixteen Candles, 1984 © Channel Productions

As the day progresses, Sam makes the most of it, watching from afar Jake and his seemingly stuck-up but popular girlfriend Caroline (Haviland Morris), longing to be more than she thinks she is. As all things seem to spiral out of control, all in humorous but somehow wrenching ways, leaving poor Sam thinking 16 is the worst age a girl can be.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: What is so effective about all of this, despite the trappings of the genre and plenty of silly gags (some involving an Asian foreign exchange student – played by Gedde Watanabe), is Hughes’ unshakeable attention to Sam, never framing her in manipulation or contrivance but rather authentic vulnerabilities that make her so very easy to identify with, although much credit goes to Ringwald for bringing her to life. Notice how she is never overtly used as a prop for a joke or a gag but rather a product of them, born organically from very real if slightly exaggerated situations, a trademark of Hughes’ early films that grew larger as time passed. She is not the soon-to-be-identified Manic Pixie Dream Girl, nor the overly-encumbered sad girl in need of saving but well, just a girl, one that feels like any her age but also unique, infinitely herself. There is reason why Hughes chose her for this project, and it’s that disarming way Ringwald feels so special and yet so identifiable.

Sixteen Candles
Sixteen Candles, 1984 © Channel Productions

Watch carefully also the arcs of both Sam and Ted (listed only as “the Geek” in the credits). Notice where they start and how they end up, not just on predictable paths that see obvious wins the genre already prescribes, but well-earned moments of character development no often seen in teen romp comedies. We aren’t prodded to have sympathy for them, they earn it.

A GREAT MOMENT: One of the better reasons why a Hughes films work so well is the balance of comedy and drama with neither tipping the scales too far in either direction. Humor comes from lived in moments, which have this wonderful sense of authenticity while still feeling just outside reality.

Sixteen Candles
Sixteen Candles, 1984 © Channel Productions

This comes together nicely in a moment when Ted and Sam find themselves in an unfinished car in the school’s auto mechanic’s shop where confessions are made, deals are brokered, moves are attempted and thwarted and friendships are bound. It’s funny, touching, and most all all human. It’s rare for films in this genre to treat young people and their issues so frankly and honestly, but it’s exactly why this moment works as well as it does. We learn just how hard her day has been, how wrong it is that she’s been forgotten, and how courageous she is for being as strong as she is. Buffered by Ted, it’s a sharp examination of two stages in the lives of boys and girls at that age that further reveals the great gaps of maturity that often encircle it without compromising either of the characters. Great stuff.

THE TALLY: Sixteen Candles is a film in orbit, one of those movies that transcends the era it was made and has become so cherished and beloved, it is essentially untouchable as it continues to inspire, entertain, and influence. A film that grows with its audience, it captures much about not only the times it was made but a timelessness that appeals to us all, each of us at one point connecting with someone in the movie, probably either Sam or Ted.

Sixteen Candles
Sixteen Candles, 1984 © Channel Productions

Look for very young John Cusack as one of Farmer Ted’s pals and download the soundtrack, a staple for any 80s music fan. If you haven’t seen Sixteen Candles, you really ought to give it a chance and maybe pack it with a few other Hughes films in a marathon viewing. A well-made and wonderfully engaging film, it’s what to watch.

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