Happy birthday, Sixteen Candles, you’re really weird.
Perhaps you’ve forgotten just how weird Sixteen Candles is, but rest assured, it’s weird.
John Hughes’ directorial debut arrived in theaters on May 4, 1984 (Star Wars Day, as the Internet recognizes it), making it officially thirty-years-old today. At the time, Hughes had already penned Mr. Mom, National Lampoon’s Vacation and a bunch of episodes of Delta House, but Sixteen Candles marked his first foray behind the camera in a directorial capacity. The fact that the film is rarely referred to as a very, very weird little comedy is both a total shame and fairly understandable, if only because it’s much easier to forget the skewed nature of Hughes’ comedic sensibilities and instead focus on the important thing – it’s a teen romance starring Molly Ringwald – that defined a large section of Hughes’ career, for better or worse.
Plenty of eighties films were just plain weird – consider Howard the Duck, which is the standard bearer of weird eighties films, thanks to both its actual execution and its source material, along with Hughes’ third film, Weird Science, which saw Bill Paxton get turned into a talking glob and the landing of a nuclear missile in a residential home as mere subplots – but there’s a difference when it comes to Sixteen Candles. The feature is rarely remembered as a “weird” film and is instead often categorized next to Hughes’ other, later Molly Ringwald-starring features.
Even as a kid, a Hughes junkie like me tended to lump Sixteen Candles in next to other Hughes films like Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, and Some Kind of Wonderful (which didn’t star Ringwald, but was supposed to, which puts the film in some sort of odd, Ringwald-ian middle ground).
Pretty in Pink (which, like Wonderful, Hughes only wrote) is not like Sixteen Candles. The weirdest thing that happens in Pretty in Pink is bad sartorial choices, and even that’s forgivable because it was the eighties (though it’s probably time we get real honest about how horrific Andie’s big special prom dress was, as if she blew up a pattern for a Barbie dress and somehow cross-bred it with a tablecloth). The Breakfast Club is very much not like Sixteen Candles, and its dramatic tone and self-seriousness hold over even now (this is a compliment), making it even stranger to consider what Hughes’ career would look like – what Sixteen Candles would look like – if the filmmaker had been able to direct that film first, as he originally wanted to.
What is enduring about the weirdest moments in Sixteen Candles is that they are still rooted in truth and honest emotion. Consider the actual inciting incident of the film – young Samantha Baker’s “sweet sixteen” is forgotten by her entire family, mainly because it happens to fall on the day before her big sister’s big wedding. Understandable, and yet! Wouldn’t you think that it would have occurred to someone – anyone – during wedding planning that there would be big day overlap? Surely, Samantha’s sweet but scatterbrained mom made a mental note, one that was promptly forgotten in the hubbub, but a note nonetheless. Instead, the entire thing seems to be a surprise to the family, beyond Samantha.
Weird, but if that doesn’t speak to teenage isolation, what else possibly could?
Most of the film’s other wacky-weird moments are confined to smaller scenes, yet the kind that come complete with some damn fine visuals. Consider the following:
Samantha is greeted by her grandparents with a healthy boob grab.
The entire panty-sharing scene, in addition to being a classic sequence, is also incredibly bizarre and something that would never happen in “real life.” The ideas behind it, though – mainly that horny teenage boys are disgusting – are universal.
How does this even happen?
Cheap beer is a hell of a drug, kids.
And so are muscle relaxers.
The weirdest thing about Sixteen Candles, however, is just about everything that involves Long Duck Dong (insert culturally insensitive gong noise here). Who? Long Duck Dong. (Gong.) Sure, he’s a foreign exchange student, so a healthy dose of culture-based mix-ups is to be expected, but Dong goes above and beyond.
He bangs a gym teacher, you guys.
He also gets amusingly and realistically drunk on camera and almost unravels all the good work Samantha has so far completed.
The Donger need food.
All that weirdness aside, Sixteen Candles is still a classic of teenage romance and high school mortification – no easy feat, but one especially outlandish when you throw in muscle relaxers and a guy who boffs a teacher on an exercise bike – and the fact that its stranger elements are so often forgotten speaks to the power of its emotional center and more mainstream humor.
Happy birthday, Sixteen Candles, you are so weird.