Sixteen Candles (1984)

★★★★

Director: John Hughes

Release Date: May 4th, 1984 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Romance

Starring: Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Michael Schoeffling

John Hughes got it. The teenage ‘life, the universe and everything else is against me’ phenomena that grabs hold in those years of early adolescence. Hughes captured it, twisted it, humourised it, but never demonised it. In a society which often bemoans the pre-adult demographic, where an internet driven social media age embarks primarily on straining relationships between old and young, films such as The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Sixteen Candles hold even more reverence. There’s no cynicism here, only joyfully glum appreciation. Of life lessons and abridged maturity. John Hughes reminds us that teenage years are not tepid, far from it, and that teenagers are not turbulent. Most of all, he reminds us to laugh and to cherish a generous time lived in all our lives.

Waking up on the morning of her 16th birthday, Sam (Molly Ringwald) is frustrated by the lack of overnight bodily development. Exacerbating matters, her entire family are too caught up in the hysteria of her sister’s impending wedding that Sam’s landmark day of celebration has been shunned far from the forefront of any of their minds. School treats her with the same apparent disinterest too; Sam only has eyes for senior student Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling) who she believes is unaware of her own existence. Enter witty, geeky Ted (Anthony Michael Hall) and let the chaotic, humorous and well-meaning love maze commence.

Sixteen Candles was John Hughes’ first outing in the director’s chair, so it would be conceivable to forgive a sprinkling of over-eagerness on his part, or even stout rigidity. Forget that. Hughes sinks the nostalgic, adolescent lobe of his creativity-centre into the plundering paranoia of teenage high school life and comes up with a thriving, fun piece of filmmaking that doesn’t take itself too seriously — which at the end of the day is kind of the point considering his characters do take ultra-seriously a time in their lives that should be driven by inhibition. Subsequently though, importantly, it never boils over into caricature territory. You always get the feeling that these people on screen could be real people in real life, and that their self-aware predicaments are similarly scattered throughout schools all over the empirical world. In this sense, there’s an intrinsic personal attraction present, one that encapsulates the viewer because he or she knows that they have been where Sam’s emotions currently reside, or that they are even still living there.

And the thing is, as Sam worries over-dramatically about a missing sex quiz, or her inert awkwardness at the mercy of the love of her life Jake, it’s obvious that none of this really matters: “You know? Neither one of us is gonna die if it doesn’t happen for us.” This epitomises the opposite mentality which is prevalent throughout the film, an important one yes, but not a mentality based on set-in-stone principles. High-school life exists in a strange, disconnected bubble separated from the rest of civilisation. From when the bell rings at nine o’clock until it resounds six or seven hours later, you’re only focused on inter-class gossip or what’s on the lunch menu, far removed of the outside world. Hughes generates this introverted atmosphere exceedingly well, and mirrors it with the unimportant struggles of the teenager. It’s because Sam’s misgivings are heralded by herself and her peers as the worst problems (or best solutions) on earth that a natural hilarity ensues.

Central to many of the funny goings-on is Anthony Michael Hall, whose freshman Ted is fuelled by a bet made amongst his pals prompting a need to sleep with Sam. Ted’s youthful insecurities are often hidden under a surface sheen of semi-arrogance and energy. He’s a bit of a chancer, not least when making a second move on his target merely moments after being forgiven for the first eager attempt. Hall’s portrayal of this youngster unsure of his convictions is often witty as he snaps back many of the funniest lines. His persistence in the face of staunch rebuttals — mainly from Molly Ringwald’s Sam — is chuckle-laden, and the pair share a flourishing dynamic. Ringwald has much of the film resting on her premature shoulders as her various plots and non-successes are the basis of the amusing proceedings, and she does a tremendous job as the blissfully suffering lead. Both Hall and Ringwald would go on to work more as part of Hughes’ teenage parable series of movies, and their respective primitive deliveries here, plumb, full of comedy and wholehearted, offer only a few reasons why.

Perhaps when all is said and done there’s really not much difference between the material struggles of a teenage-existence and adulthood. Alcohol-drowned parties remain alcohol-drowned parties no matter how old you get. Relationships are still relationships until the knot has been tied. Sixteen Candles alludes to this continuity, embodied by way of the utterly chaotic preparation and execution of Sam’s sister’s wedding — a tumultuous pandemonium succeeded by no other. There’s no biased cynicism towards an age or demographic superfluous in the grand scheme of things because in the grand scheme of things, the trials of adulthood can be just as nonsensical and anarchic, yet sweet in nature (look out for a wedding commandeered by muscle-relaxant) as those teenage years.

Sixteen Candles is the first in a line of emotive comedies that paved the way for films from the Judd Apatow’s and Richard Linklater’s of this world. It’s not difficult to comprehend why John Hughes movies (his early work in particular) are so affectionately regarded these days. Relatable characters, charming mindfulness and funny screenplays are just three of the key proponents for present-day recognition, and are certainly three boastful characteristics on display here.

Mud (2013)

★★★★★

Director: Jeff Nichols

Release Date: May 10th, 2013 (UK and US)

Genre: Drama

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon

“Well ain’t that somethin’?”

Matthew McConaughey’s would-be convict Mud appreciates the trivial simplicities of life: a boat for crossing water, food to quench hunger and loyalty in a time of need. What else if not the bare minimum, would a man of his troubles seek refuge amongst? His runaway status evokes moral juggling — do you root for the criminal, or sentence the lover? Jeff Nichols’ admirable tale of two boys who tend to see the best in otherwise dour surroundings works well on a number of narratively distinct levels. However it’s only when each aspect blends with the other elements above, below and to either side that Mud emerges from good film status, to really great film status.

And that most definitely is something.

Ellis and Neckbone spend their days stretching their curfews to the maximum in the jungle-like plains of Arkansas. They’re young, ambitious and boast that primitive exuberance driven by the desire to learn and discover, an energy that only fully manifests out on the edge of civilisation, where uninhabited landscapes taunt with hidden secrets. On another planned excavation to an abandoned boat planted high in a tree, the boys encounter the mysterious Mud: grizzled, somewhat wearisome yet poised and alert. From then, perhaps partly captivated by the stranger who appears to be the ultimate wild-man and also drawn upon the notion of trust, optimism and loyalty, Ellis and Neckbone make it their prerogative to assist the moored Mud in his attempts to reconnect with the girlfriend he murdered a perpetrator to protect.

On full throttle through his self-professed McConaissance, Matthew McConaughey delivers another outstanding performance as the titular Mud. The romcom stalwart turned highly-rated ‘serious’ star has an underplayed role, seldom emitting bouts of raw emotion (although when he does, he succeeds). McConaughey is challenged opposite two younger actors; he must act as a buffer for their highly-spirited intuition whilst developing his own character’s persona simultaneously. It’s fitting that he is the centrepiece of the narrative, the proverbial glue holding everything together, however it should be noted that McConaughey is not the centrepiece of the film. That’s the pair of maturing youths, Ellis and Neckbone, both portrayed brilliantly and charmingly by Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland.

Ellis and Neckbone are instantly drawn to the rugged fugitive. Although indecisive (particularly Neckbone) the boys see something in Mud that they do not have in their own lives — a father figure. Ellis, parents’ relationship cracking, is often faced with a distant dad who worries more about his own future rather than that of his son. Neckbone lives with his uncle, an outgoing type resembling the cooler big brother as opposed to a caring father. Growing up in a masculine culture, one defined by putting food on the table, working and earning and treating women with utmost respect, Ellis sees hope in Mud’s outright optimism. Optimism for love and a secure relationship in the face of violence and restraint. Optimism for freedom against restriction. Tye Sheridan, who the camera follows more than anyone, holds his own in scenes opposite a multitude of big-name actors: other than McConaughey, the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson and Michael Shannon make up an efficient, talented supporting cast.

Stand by Me is an obvious comparison but the coming-of-age component is only one of two main plot lines, the other channelling a more commonly depicted fugitive (and subsequent search for) story. Mud, having murdered the man who impregnated the love of his life Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and later thrown her downstairs, has no allies. Police prompt his image in the faces of residents and passers-by. The father and brother of Mud’s victim spend their relentlessly watching Juniper, ready to pounce and eliminate the outcast on sight. Mud has done wrong, but his eloquent treatment of the two boys demands admiration. He becomes their guru, and a trusted one at that (“It’s a hell of a thing ain’t it?” Hell of a thing”). You want him to succeed, just as much as you root for Ellis and Neckbone in their numerous quests: for maturity, for relationship, for acceptance.

The two primary narratives amalgamate into one, creating a wonderful Winter’s BoneMoonrise Kingdom hybrid. Our main characters share a familier desire. Others are interested in self-preservation of body, property and history. There are even boats and water, a lot of it. The setting shares connotations with both films too, and is the very first nuance you are aware of as the outing begins. Shot beautifully by Adam Stone, the widespread landscapes juxtapose Mud’s isolation and loneliness, highlighting just how much he is hemmed in by a multitude of threats. His lack of ever-presence reinforces this idea of being trapped, and along with McConaughey’s composed-yet-ready-to-burst demeanour, you are always captivated by Mud and ultimately invested in his fate.

Jeff Nichols writes as eloquently as he directs. Camera enveloping atmosphere, words rhyming off lips propelled by their engrossing southern drawls, Nichols offers up a truly splendid piece of film. Alongside his young co-stars, McConaughey matches the excellence served up by his director and delivers on all fronts.

On present form, is there any stopping him?