Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a 1986 comedy about a clever high school boy who decides to skip school one last time before graduating.
Can one really be expected to handle school on such a beautiful day? For Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick), that’s an easy answer. He’s about to graduate, so taking one last day off is a no-brainer and this time, it has got to be something great. So, he puts together a plan, and once the parents have bought his story that he’s feeling ill, it’s now time to convince best friend Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck) to do the same, mostly because, well, he has a car. Turns out Frye really is sick though, but gives in once he realizes that, well, Bueller isn’t gonna stop. He’ll keep calling, and calling, and calling. Truth is, Ferris is just that kinda guy. He’s funny, charming, and very popular. Everyone likes him. The sportos and motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastetoids, dweebies, dickheads … they all think he’s a righteous dude. Well, all except for two people. First, his sister Jeanie (Jennifer Grey) is jealous of all the attention, and second, Edward R. Rooney (Jeffery Jones) the Dean of Students who has had enough of Bueller’s antics. He’s setting a bad example for all the other students. The two of them are committed to exposing Ferris for the fraud he truly is. Good luck with that.
Written and directed by legendary teen-angst movie maker, John Hughes, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a light-hearted trip into the world of a boy who tricks his way to having whatever he wants, is adored by nearly every person he meets, and gets away with just about anything, including the spontaneous hijacking of the The Von Steuben Day Parade in downtown Chicago where he jumps onto a float and breaks into Twist and Shout. For reasons that are obvious, everyone joins in and soon 10,000 people are singing and dancing along. That’s just every day for Ferris. The film has come to define an era and is beloved by more than one generation for its irreverent and yet honest take on coming of age. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
Taking A Stand
Ferris, his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara), and Cameron have returned from their adventure in Chicago, one in which they’d “borrowed” Cameron’s father’s incredibly rare 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder convertible, something that Frye fought against doing but, as always, gave in to Bueller’s relentless pressure. Unfortunately, while in the city, they left it in the care of a some garage attendants who just happened to find the car irresistible and took it out on a joy ride.
So now the classic car, one that Cameron’s father treats better than his family, has a bit more miles on the odometer than they expected and well, this has Cameron a little concerned. Freaked out is more like it. So much so, it appeared he was going to end it all in the family pool. Either way, they need a plan, and so the boys prop up the rear axle and run the car in reverse, thinking somehow that will spin the numbers back. Naturally, it doesn’t … now Frye is about to have a moment. And it’s good one.
On screen, Fry transforms, confessing he is tired of his life, the fear and the worry and the depression. He’d already told Ferris that today was the best day of his life. It’s a simple sentiment, but one that is unbelievably crucial. Something has changed. So when Ferris attempts to take control and crack open the dashboard to roll back the numbers himself, Frye refuses and says, “I gotta take a stand.”
It is from here where Cameron paces about the expensive car, fighting demons in his mind, voicing more to himself than his friends that he’s done taking what his father doles out. He’s gotta take a stand. And here we see an incredibly powerful moment of rebirth in a sense as Ruck does a remarkable job in bringing the real Cameron Frye to the surface. He beats his chest and demands of himself that he no longer be tread upon by his father. He’s gotta take a stand.
It might be a little surprising to choose a scene in a movie called Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and not pick a moment that features the titular character but in truth, even while this moment centers on Cameron, like all things in this movie, it is of consequence of Ferris. He has domain over every one and every thing, and as such, Cameron, too. And because of this, it might be said that in fact, the film is indeed not Ferris’ story, as all things work for this, but rather the people orbiting around him, most especially Cameron. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is really his story.
In truth, it is his arc that proves the most satisfying. Ruck was 29-years-old at the time of filming, playing a teenager, and perhaps some of that maturity lent itself to giving the character the right depth. And in a movie all about the comedy, the sudden shift to drama, and the powerful performance by Ruck are memorizing, especially in a film where laughter has been the driving force. Sure, we knew something was up with Frye, most particularly in a surreal moment at the Art Institute of Chicago as he finds himself lost in the painted face of a young child in Georges-Pierre Seurat‘s, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. But the transformation for Cameron is shocking and for anyone watching, even a little up-lifting. We never meet his father, who seems to have shaped the boy so harshly, but we can feel his presence nonetheless.
But in a movie about Ferris Bueller’s day off, why should be we stop and spend some serious time with his best friend? Well, as alluded too, Cameron is really the hero of our story. Ferris, just like David Lightman in WarGames, is the anti-hero, the character who gets away with everything and still earns our forgiveness. With Frye, he has been the victim, the underdog … until now, and suddenly we have hope again, and for most anyone in the audience, this is why we go to the movies. Cameron becomes the only character in the film to evolve, to solve his problems, and will undoubtedly be the most successful of the group. While Ferris will most assuredly spend the rest of his life playing tricks on his folks to keep alive that fragile and fraudulent relationship with his younger self intact, at least Cameron will have faced his father and whatever the outcome, the truth is now out there, even if it is in the form of a smashed Ferrari.
But there’s a lot more going on in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off that deserves a look. And it would be unfair to go all this way and not shed some light on the main character. Ferris takes the tropes of the genre and redefines many of them, and in a way, creates all new ones. Thinks about the grown-ups he deals with. Adults as buffoons are nothing new in movies. Teenagers spend a lot of money at the movies so why not have kids or teens in the role of the hero(es). Broderick was the absolute king of this trope for most of the 80s and his smarmy on-screen personality and confident persona exemplified the archetype, setting a standard that still exists.
In Ferris Bueller, it goes a step further by inviting the audience in on the act. Ferris reveals his secrets, offering tips for the uninitiated right to the screen in classic fourth wall breaks. This is most prevalent in the early scenes, setting up the character and the tone of the film. When Ferris first let’s us in, it’s not only welcome, it’s a signal that, no, we’re not the fools in Bueller’s world. We’re in on it. That’s important.
After he’s been lying in bed feigning sickness for his oblivious parents–in what he calls his “worst “performance”–he sits up and looks us straight in the eye. “They bought it,” he smiles, as if we’re cohorts in his scheme. How fun is that? He knows we’re smarter than his folks. Of course we are. We now get a ringside seat and this is actually a relief because we can clearly see that his histrionics are a show, and by inviting us in on the guise, we feel a lot more comfortable.
In fact, we want to be participatory. Tell us more, we demand! And he does. Ferris gives a guided tour of his past exploits and a running commentary on just about anything, from European socialism to how best to have clammy hands when pretending to be sick (lick the palms). That last one even uses the screen as a method of delivery, adding text to the image as Bueller explains how to fake an illness. It’s a genius addition, used only once, which is exactly the right amount of times. Ferris is about keeping it fresh. His style is adaptive and spontaneous. We never see the same trick twice. We are constantly trying to keep up. That’s the point.
In the brief opening montage as he explains his situation, he is seen in different outfits each time, even though the time passing can’t possible be more than a few minutes. We don’t care. Like life in Jurassic Park, Ferris finds a way. His room, a bedazzling collection of carefully chosen paraphernalia, is a treasure trove of mind-traps and gadgets that subtly reminds us that this is not an ordinary teenager. He complains that his parents didn’t buy him a car, instead giving him a computer. Yet sitting next to said computer is a collection of electronics, including a hi-fi audio stack and E-MU Emulator II (or II+ model) synthesizer, which in 1986 averaged around $8,000. One could buy a pretty decent car for that price back then, and still have enough left over for clarinet lessons.
So who is Ferris Bueller? Why is he so remarkable? Sure, Hughes embellishes his teens with exaggerated characteristics, but Ferris is far removed from the likes of The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles. While those films take plenty of liberties, they are still grounded in reality. The kids have insecurities, are vulnerable, don’t know what to say to the opposite sex, and are filled with angst. Ferris is anything but. He’s practically a grown man in a teenager’s body. He’s wise well past his years, has tenacity, is clever, and soundly believes one can never go too far. He’s also selfish, manipulative, self-centered, and a bit dastardly (that’s right, we said dastardly!).
From dealing with Cameron and his parens, to asking his high school girlfriend to marry him, he is impulsive and narrow minded. But he’s also endearing. How is that possible? No matter his intentions, he still seems like he cares. And perhaps he does. Truthfully, he might very well be a genius, with life as a high school student being just too darned easy. Where’s the challenge? Well, that comes in running his schemes (there’s even a nod to WarGames with his changing the number of days absent on the computer, similarly to how he changed his grades. Was Pencil the password?). So well known, in just one afternoon, news of his illness spreads across town like a wildfire. By mid-day the water tower is repainted with SAVE FERRIS stenciled on the side, truckloads of flowers are being delivered, and students in school are taking a collection. We can only dream of that kind of popularity. He’s a teenager’s idol and an adult’s nightmare.
And the adult suffering the worst from that nightmare is most definitely Mr. Rooney. Has there ever been a more pathetic adult in a teen comedy? Cast as the villain, Rooney is the perfect nemesis for Ferris. He has authority which can be exploited, is easily manipulated, goes to extremes to undermine what simply cannot be undermined, and is hopelessly convinced his cheese will never be left out in the wind. No, we don’t know what that means either, but coming from Rooney, it . . . well it still doesn’t makes sense, but sure is funny. As is just about everything the Dean of Students does, even if it just from running down the hallway.
So what does it all mean? What is the take away? As a kid, this movie is an entirely different experience than it is as a grown up. As a teen, Ferris was everything we wanted to be. What boy didn’t want to be like Ferris? How closely could we get our bedrooms to look like his? (Not even.) Was there any way to dress like him and be as cool? (No. A most emphatic no. Those pants looked ridiculous!) And could there even be the remotest chance to ever get a girl like Sloane? (*Sigh*). As an adult, we see the troublesome kid he really is, but what makes him special is we would still trade places for day, no doubt about it. Youth is a precious thing and Ferris understands that. The snooty Maitre’d says he weeps for the future when he encounters Ferris and his friends. Well the future has come and things seem just about okay, Ferris or no. Life moves pretty fast …