In general, The Cameo’s John Hughes season is a Very Good Thing. I jumped at the chance to see The Breakfast Club on the big screen last Sunday, and already have my ticket for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off next month. But today is a little different: I’ve never seen Sixteen Candles before, so I’m not wallowing in nostalgia. I’m here to see what I have missed.
And, it turns out, what I’ve missed is something rather different. Sixteen Candles is very uncomfortable to watch. To put it bluntly, this is a racist, sexist embarrassment, which seems to endorse rape. Oh dear.
It stars Molly Ringwald as Sam, a sparky teenager whose parents are so caught up in her sister’s wedding plans that they forget her sixteenth birthday. To make matters worse, the boy Sam has a crush on, Jake (Michael Schoeffling), doesn’t seem to know she exists and anyway, he’s dating Caroline (Haviland Morris), the hottest girl in school. Meanwhile, she has to fend off the unwanted attentions of uber-geek Farmer Ted (Anthony Michael Hall), and sleep on the sofa because her grandparents have comandeered her room. So far, so what I’d expect: some excellently observed insights into the teenage mind, and that trademark understanding of the all-consuming emotions that are part of growing up. Okay, so there are way too many characters, a sprawling cast of family members and schoolkids clogging up the plot and confusing things without really adding much (two sets of grandparents, in-laws, two younger siblings, the geek’s friends, Sam’s best friend, a girl in a neck-brace, a Chinese exchange student – more about him later) but that’s okay; it’s the work of a young film-maker after all, and Hughes certainly learns to pare things back for his next movie, The Breakfast Club.
But it’s impossible to ignore the racism and misogyny that pervade this piece. I wonder if it seemed so blatant on its release in 1984? I like to think I would have been affronted even then (I was thirteen, and quite politically aware); certainly, in 2017, it’s awkward in the extreme. The Chinese exchange student, Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe), for example: what’s his purpose here? Every time his name is mentioned, there’s a wince-inducing gong; I think he’s supposed to be funny just because he’s foreign and has a suggestive name. Urgh. Then there’s Jake, who’s supposedly a ‘good guy’ because he’d like a real relationship with a girl like Sam, instead of the regular sex he’s currently having with prom queen Caroline, who, he complains, likes to party too much. Poor Jake. Still, in the aftermath of a drunken house-party, Jake says that, if Farmer Ted agrees to give him Sam’s knickers (don’t ask), he will repay him by allowing Ted to drive the unconscious Caroline home, and ‘have some fun’ with her. What a hero. Less sinister but perhaps more baffling is what happens to Sam’s sister, Ginny (Blanche Baker), who – shock horror! – gets her period on her wedding day. Ginny seems to be in her twenties, so she’s likely to have experienced this phenomena every month for a good few years. And about a quarter of brides are probably menstruating as they say their vows – because… biology. So, it really shouldn’t be that big a deal. And yet, somehow, it derails Ginny’s whole day, sending her into a frenzy, and causing her to take ‘muscle relaxants’ that have the effect of a bottle of vodka, rendering her completely helpless. It’s not funny, it’s just odd.
So, yeah. Not such a resounding success, this one, despite Ringwald’s charm and Hall’s delicious awkwardness. It really hasn’t stood the test of time.