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"SIXTEEN CANDLES" is about suburban Chicago teen-agers, but it's less raucous in tone than most of the recent teen pictures; it's closer to the gentle English comedies of the forties and fifties. It doesn't amount to much, and it's certainly not to be confused with a work of art or a work of any depth, but the young writer-director John Hughes has a knack for making you like the high-school age characters better each time you hear them talk. The picture has a good, simple premise. Samantha (Molly Ringwald), a high-school sophomore, is having the worst day of her life. It's her sixteenth birthday, and, in the midst of preparations for her older sister's wed- ding, the whole family has forgotten about it. And in the evening, when she goes to a school dance and longs to be noticed by the handsome senior (Michael Schoeffling) who's the man of her dreams, she's subjected to the humiliating attentions of a scrawny freshman (Anthony Michael Hall) who's known as Geek--a pesty, leering smartmouth with braces on his teeth. (His attempt at a sexy smile is pure weirdness.) Geek follows her wherever she goes, ogling her, and he tries to court her on the dance floor, circling around her like an impassioned whooping crane. He moves quickly, with his head down: he's not watching his feet--he's concentrating on the action of his body. He's turning himself on, and he feels masterful; he isnít aware of the effect he's having on Samantha until she runs off. Samantha gets so down on herself and the world that when the senior, who feels he's alone when he's with his prom-queen girlfriend, comes over to her she panics and bolts. The senior, misunderstanding, feels rejected.

Molly Ringwald, who played Miranda in Paul Mazursky's 1982 "Tempest" and was the young heroine of Lamont Johnson's 1983 "Space-hunter," has an offbeat candor. Only fifteen when "Sixteen Candles" was shot, she plays a free-spoken modern cutie, and it's perfectly clear that Samantha's freedom is the result of a pleasant middle-class home and loving parents. There's nothing submissive about her, but she isn't rebellious, either. When Samantha is alone, she sometimes talks out loud, telling us what she thinks, and Molly Ringwald does it so artlessly it seems like a normal way of behaving. Her acting gives the picture a lyric quality. The tilt of Samantha's head suggests a guileless sort of yearning, and there's something lovely about the slight gaucheness of her restless, long arms. In one of the film's best scenes, she finds herself alone with Geek and discovers that she can actually talk to him about her troubles. She recognizes that the reason she hasn't liked him is that he's young, like her. He drops his brash, coming-on manner, and she tells him about its being her birthday that everyone forgot-as she puts it, her family "just sort of blew it off." He confesses that he has never "bagged a babe," and she tells him her deepest secret-that she is still "on hold," and that she has been saving herself for the handsome senior.

Geek treats that confidence very respectfully; he also loses his crush on her fast-he's not on the prowl for a maiden. During their conversation, he begins to look less Geeky and just un- formed. He has pale eyelashes, and his fair hair sticks up on his head but it is too downy to achieve the punk effect he hoped for; he has the soft features of a fledgling. Anthony Michael Hall is in fact no more than a year older than the freshman he's playing. His Geek is a computer-age teen version of the early Woody Allen character--the fast-talking genius nerd--but Hall moves like Steve Martin, and even more confidently. Geek, with his pitchman's hard sell, is a product of television (and his appearances are heralded by the theme music of TV shows). What's best about him is his self-awareness; he knows that he looks like a jerk, but he's not going to let that stop him from making out. He has nerve; he's an operator, and he knows how to put what he learns to use--he has a man-to-man talk with the senior which is a model of suave diplomacy. Part of what makes "Sixteen Candles" entertaining is that the senior-a confident- looking jock--has his own uncertainties and turns out to be as romantic at heart as Samantha, while Geek comes through as a stud.

This picture was John Hughes' debut as a director (he wrote the scripts for a couple of National Lampoon films and for "Mr. Mom"), and he may have got in a little over his head. Samantha has a full complement of family: in addition to siblings (her younger brother is played by Justin Henry, of "Kramer vs. Kramer," who's going through an odd phase--he looks like a little Stephen King), she has two parents, and her four grandparents have arrived at her house for the wedding. All these people are part of Hughes' farcical superstructure, and maybe there's too much of this apparatus. One set of grandparents (a huge man and a tiny woman) compete with each other, talking to Samantha at the same time; as dumb gags go, it's not bad, but Hughes shows no particular emotion about the people-nothing to make it more than a dumb gag. The four grandparents come off as sitcom characters, and so do the new in-laws and most of the people involved in the wedding. And somehow the relationship between Samantha and her sister (Blanche Baker), the bride, seems lost in a haze. It isn't clear what sort of girl this sister is meant to be, and though her scenes are skewed to be funny they don't quite get there. The children in this family are a strange assortment-they couldn't look more unlike. But they sound like siblings. John Hughes has a feeling for verbal rhythms, and he knows how kids toss words around, especially the words that set them apart from their elders. What gives "Sixteen Candles" its peppiness is his affection for teenagers' wacko slang-phrases carrying such strong positive and negative charges that they have a dizzy immediacy. And he's on to how kids use computerese, as in "By night's end, I predict that me and her will interface."