High school sophomore Samantha "Sam" Baker struggles to go through the day on her 16th birthday, which her entire family has forgotten about because her older sister, Ginny, is getting married the next day. She is also plagued by infatuation with a popular and attractive senior, Jake Ryan. At school, she fares no better when she finds out that a completed "sex quiz", which she tried to surreptitiously slip to her friend Randy, never reached her friend Randy and, unbeknownst to either of them, was picked up by Jake. Despite her name not being on the quiz, Sam is still a bit panicked because the quiz contains sensitive information, such as how she is a virgin and is saving herself for Jake.
During gym class, Jake opens up to his friend Rock, admitting that he feels like things with his girlfriend Caroline have become stagnant. He also tells him how he thinks it's cool that he keeps catching Sam looking at him from time to time.
Meanwhile, an outgoing geeky freshman named Ted is in love with Sam. On the school bus ride home, he tries to hit on her, only to have her spurn him with some trash-talk before she gets off.
At home, Sam has a whole new set of problems when she discovers that all four of her grandparents are staying at the Baker home during the wedding. One set of grandparents has brought along a bizarre foreign exchange student, Long Duk Dong. The grandparents force Sam to take him along to her school's senior dance that night and, to Sam's amazement, it takes "The Donger" only five minutes to find an unlikely girlfriend—the tall, large-breasted jock, Marlene.
As the freshmen hang out at the gym, Ted's two best friends, Bryce and Cliff, watch as Ted crashes and burns after he once again hits on Sam and fails, with an upset Sam running off. Undeterred by this latest rejection, Ted accepts a bet from his friends that he can score with Sam. For proof, they need Ted to bring them her panties. While Jake and Caroline are slow dancing, he sees Ted's interaction with Sam, so Jake asks him what he knows about her. Shocked that a senior is talking to him, Ted opens up a bit and boldly states that Ted hopes to take Sam home with him after the dance.
Looking for some solace, Sam finds her way to the school's auto shop. Ted finds her and sees that she is still upset. She opens up to Ted, telling him how disappointed she was with her family forgetting her birthday. Sam also confesses her love for Jake. Upon hearing this, Ted tells her that Jake had been asking about her at the dance, and they agree that Sam should just go and talk to him. As she's leaving, Ted reveals the wager he made with his friends, so Sam agrees to loan him her panties.
After Ted, Cliff, and Bryce have an impromptu peep show in the boys bathroom to show off the panties, they head over to Jake's house for the dance's after-party. Almost immediately, the trio find themselves in an awkward situation, knocking over a huge beer can pyramid. With Jake's parents away for the weekend, his home becomes trashed by the dozens of students that crashed the party. Disgusted, he heads to his bedroom alone and tracks down Sam's phone number after finding her picture in the school yearbook. He tries to call her, only to get tongue-tied when her grandparents answer instead.
At night's end, Jake finds Ted trapped under a table and they begin to talk. Jake inquires further about Sam, and Ted explains the situation. Jake makes a deal with Ted: If Jake gets to return the panties to Sam, then Ted gets to drive a very drunk Caroline home in Jake's father's Rolls Royce.
The next morning, Jake goes to Sam's house, only to have a hungover Donger miscommunicate that Sam was at church getting married. Jake then finds Caroline and Ted making out in the back of his dad's banged-up Rolls. With this turn of events, Jake and Caroline mutually agree that it's time for them to break up and remain friends. Jake then drives to the church just in time to meet an incredulous Sam after her sister's wedding.
The film concludes with Sam and Jake sharing a kiss over a birthday cake with 16 candles. Jake tells her to make a wish, but Sam says that her wish has already come true.
John Hughes had asked his agent for headshots of young actresses, and among those he received were those of Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy. Sheedy had auditioned for the role of Sam, but was dropped because of Hughes thinking Ringwald was more fitting for the role, but he called her a year later to give her a role in The Breakfast Club. Inspired by Ringwald's appearance, he put it up over his desk and wrote the film just over a weekend with her in mind for the lead role. For the male lead in the film, it had come down to Schoeffling and Viggo Mortensen. For the part of Ted, Hughes saw a number of actors for the role: "Every single kid who came in to read for the part... did the whole, stereotyped high school nerd thing. You know - thick glasses, ball point pens in the pocket, white socks. But when Michael came in he played it straight, like a real human being. I knew right at that moment that I'd found my geek."
Sixteen Candles was filmed primarily in and around the Chicago North Shore suburban communities of Evanston, Skokie, and Highland Park, Illinois during the summer of 1983, when leads Ringwald and Hall were 15 years old. Most of the exterior scenes and some of the interior scenes were filmed at Niles East High School, close to downtown Skokie, the setting for Hall's driving the Rolls Royce. A cafeteria scene and a gym scene, were filmed at Niles North High School. The auto shop scene was filmed at Niles East High School in the auto shop. The Baker house is located at 3022 Payne Street in Evanston. The church (Glencoe Union Church - 263 Park Avenue) and parking lot where the final scenes take place are in Glencoe.
The original soundtrack was released as a specially priced mini album containing only 5 songs. However, the movie actually featured an extensive selection of over 30 songs. Songs from the movie that were not included on the soundtrack EP are as follows:
In its opening weekend the film grossed $4,461,520 in 1,240 theaters in the United States and Canada, ranking second. By the end of its run, Sixteen Candles grossed $23,686,027 against a budget of $6.5 million.
Sixteen Candles was well received by critics and is considered by many as one of the best films of 1984. Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 86% of critics gave it a positive rating, based on 36 reviews with an average rating of 7/10, the site's critical consensus reads: "Significantly more mature than the teen raunch comedies that defined the era, Sixteen Candles is shot with compassion and clear respect for his characters and their hang-ups". Ringwald's performance was especially praised; Variety called her "engaging and credible" while Roger Ebert wrote that she "provides a perfect center for the story".
The character of Long Duk Dong was criticized for being “unfunny” and a “potentially offensive stereotype” of Asian people. In 2008, Alison MacAdam of NPR wrote, "To some viewers, he represents one of the most offensive Asian stereotypes Hollywood ever gave America." Asian Americans have complained that they were taunted with quotes of his stilted-English lines. At the time of release Roger Ebert defended him, writing that Gedde Watanabe "elevates his role from a potentially offensive stereotype to high comedy".
In an article published in Salon, Amy Benfer considers whether the film directly condones date rape. After the party scene, Jake tells Ted that his girlfriend Caroline is "in the bedroom right now, passed out cold. I could violate her ten different ways if I wanted to." He encourages Ted to drive her home saying "she's so blitzed she won't know the difference." When Caroline and Ted wake up next to each other in the car, Caroline says she's fairly certain they had sex though neither of them remember it. Amy Benfer writes "The scene only works because people were stupid about date rape at the time. Even in a randy teen comedy, you would never see two sympathetic male characters conspiring to take advantage of a drunk chick these days."
Author Anthony C. Bleach has argued that one possibility for Caroline's emotional and physical ruin in the film "might be that she is unappreciative of (or unreflective about) her class position," adding that, "what happens to Caroline in the narrative, whether her sloppy drunkenness, her scalping, or the potential for sexual coercion, seems to be both a projection of Samantha's desire to acquire Jake and become his girlfriend and a project of the film's desire to somehow harm the upper class."
In December 1984, Ringwald and Hall both won Young Artist Awards as "Best Young Actress in a Motion Picture" and "Best Young Actor in a Motion Picture" for their roles in the film, respectively becoming the first and only juvenile performers in the history of the Young Artist Awards to win the Best Leading Actress and Best Leading Actor awards for the same film (a distinction the film still retains as of 2014). In July 2008, the movie was ranked number 49 on Entertainment Weekly's list of "The 50 Best High School Movies".
In 2005, Ringwald was reported to be producing a sequel to the film.
In March 2010, Ringwald stated that she thought it was not a good idea to do remakes of great classic films.