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Movies/David Denby

"...Sixteen Candles understands kids better than most movies do--it treats their romance with great gentleness and wit..."

Sixteen Candles, the new teen dating comedy, is an odd mixture of brutality and tenderness. Screenwriter John Hughes, directing for the first time, shoves his minor characters around as if they were dirty trays in a cafeteria; he revels in the kind of crude obviousness that kids often love precisely because it's so insistenly dumb. Yet Hughes has created a lovely herione, Samantha (Molly Ringwald), and her treats her as delicately as he might a princess opening her first ball. His affection for her redeems the picture.

Samantha, a high-school sophomore in the Midwest, has turned sixteen, but no one has noticed--her entire family is preoccupied with her older sister's impending marriage. Meanwhile, at school, she's developed a crush on Jake, a dark-eyed dreamboat in the senior class. But of course Jake (Mike Schoeffling) is going out with a blonde prom queen. He has seen Samantha looking at him, and he's longing to break up with his sulky, self-centered girlfriend, but Samantha, abashed and unsure of herself, can't imagine that he might be interested in her. How could she? She's spending all her time fighting off a skinny freshman with braces--a brilliant, infuriating nonstop talker and con artist called the Geek (Anthony Michael Hall). A pretty girl turning sixteen is not about to go out with the Geek.

Most teenagers are convinced that adults never understand what's important to kids. But the adults who made Sixteen Candles understand better than most. The movie says that though Samantha's problems may not mean much in the long run they mean a great deal at that moment. Unless she receives some attention from the guy she's crazy about, she's going to be depressed for months, and the movie, solicitous as an anxious daddy, asserts that she's too fine, too good--too unselfish and true--to suffer that way.

Molly Ringwald, a charming sixteen-year-old actress with a "crushed" upper lip and a freckled nose, is one of the few kids whose trivial problems we might care about. When she rolls her eyes in dismay at some noise goofballs harassing her on the school bus, or pouts when her grandparents show up (she's bored in advance by the fuss they'll make over her), she creates so much intimacy with the camera that we don't think of her as a spoiled little bitch--we think how we might be annoyed by these things, too. Molly Ringwald (first seen in Paul Mazursky's Tempest) has a quality of radiant sanity. Her Samantha, talking to herself, makes fun of her own misfortunes even as she falls deeper into misery.

John Hughes, who wrote two of last summer's comedy hits (Mr. Mom and National Lampoon's Vacation), knows that high-school romance is largely a matter of kids trying to act out a certain image of themselves. The handsome, athletic Jake is actually a little dumb, but Jake, who has the right moves, doesn't have to be clever to come out on top. He can play Mr. Cool, saying little, and the other kids will revere him--he can sustain his style.

Hughes must know that it's hard for the audience to care deeply about the Jakes of this world--natural winners--so he makes the Geek the surprise hero. The blond, clown-faced shrimp Anthony Michael Hall has a nervous, high-torque delivery; he spins out the new teen computer/video jargon so quickly he seems to have been hatched by Mr. and Ms. Pac-Man. The Geek is the kind of demoniacally inventive kid who reaches his peak of audacity and artistry in high school. Like all such kids, he has followers--two gangly, nearly mute collections of elbows, knees, and shiny orthodontia who travel around school wearing more electronic gear on their heads than the astronauts. These two boys are classic high-school dorks in new outfits: Electronic-age wallflowers, they watch the girls at a school dance through some sort of infrared scope; they're always photographing something, always taping, broadcasting, duping. They're so busy running words and images around the circuits they don't ever have to speak to anyone.

For the moment, the Geek's main purpose in life is to convince these two that he's a stud. In a gesture of sublime generosity, Samantha lends him her panties so he can pretend to his friends that he's scored with her; he repays the favor by no longer pestering her and by doing his best to bring her together with Jake. John Hughes treats the central romantic situation with great gentleness and wit--it's only everything else in the movie that's trash. Working in a market that rewards gross-out humor, Hughes loses his artistic nerve and piles on the cheap laughs. There's the randy Chinese exchange student, picturesquely named Long Duk Dong, who topples onto large-breasted girls; there's the usual slobby teen party, with the pizza left spinning on the record turntable and soused adolescents strewn among the beer cans. Yet amid the joshing and jeering, the low comedy and mess, there are also intimations of the way bright, sensitive kids might connect with one another. Watching Sixteen Candles is like finding a couple of cans of champagne in a six-pack of Schlitz.