It’s been 25 years since the release of the iconic movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Here, from our archives, is writer Erin Dionne’s take on that 80s classic.
The Simplicity of Ferris Bueller
By Erin Dionne
Lately, it seems that I can’t escape Ferris Bueller. The movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which first opened on June 11th, 1986, has been in regular cable network rotation, and it recently reappeared on the big screen at a local cinema as part of a John Hughes film festival. Before the movie started, a gaggle of writers spoke about the impact Hughes movies had had on their lives. They were contributors to the anthology Don’t You Forget About Me: Contemporary Writers on the Films of John Hughes, edited by Jaime Clarke (Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2007).
While waiting for the movie to start, I was struck by some of the panelists’ interpretations of the film. Steve Almond, prolific author and creator of the essay “The Unexpected Heaviosity of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” for the anthology, had a great deal to say about Ferris (which he admittedly never saw as a teen). One of his points revolved around the observation that Ferris marked the onset of slacker culture in America—the whole, “taking the day off and not doing anything” life model.
I wondered if he’d seen the film at all.
Ferris Bueller is probably the antithesis of slacker culture. Ferris, instead, is the epitome of the 1980s suburban lifestyle and capitalism. He’s a high school mover and shaker. He works the system to get exactly what he wants, when he wants it. Just because he takes the day off from school doesn’t mean Ferris is a slacker; he’s using the day to its best advantage. Instead of sitting in the stultifying classroom listening to Ben Stein’s explanation of voo-doo economics, Ferris hits the town to enjoy the benefits of his free time. I had to check out Almond’s essay to see what else he thought of the film.
Almond, from the beginning, explains that “it was…the most sophisticated teen film I had ever seen. I wasn’t entirely sure if qualified as a teen film at all” (p.5). From there, he delves in to Ferris Bueller’s plot elements and chronicles Cameron’s breakdown, analyzing his “experience of pleasure [as] an ongoing battle against anxiety” (p. 11). With the weight of the film placed squarely on Cameron’s shoulders, Almond minimizes the importance of Ferris’s character, citing him at times as “nebbishy” and a “fabulous cartoon.” He also makes the film more complicated than it needs to be.
True, Ferris’s larger-than-life persona more than pushes the edges of believability, but his outlandishness illustrates the very real flaws of those around him—his parents, so work-obsessed that they don’t recognize their son’s lies or daughter’s needs; Principal Rooney, focused with laser-like precision on taking Ferris down; Cameron, mired in anguish over his relationship with his parents; and Jeanie, stewing in jealousy at her brother’s antics and peer acceptance. Ferris shows the audience an alternate, and, some could argue, better extreme–the devil-may-care attitude that allows him to embrace what his life currently is before making the transition to college. He’s milking those last perfect days of high school before the world as he knows it ends. Today, we’d label Ferris’s actions with the buzzwords “living in the moment” or “being present.”
The character of Ferris also serves as the conduit for the film’s story. Much like Nick in The Great Gatsby, Ferris is the vehicle through which the audience witnesses Cameron and Jeannie’s changes. Almond is correct in one regard—Cameron, more than Ferris, is the focus of the movie. Ferris, unlike Nick, also serves as the catalyst of the piece. It is he who puts the plot in motion and causes Cameron and Jeanie’s breakdown and realizations, respectively. And Ferris did it on purpose. At one point, Sloane remarks, “You knew what you were doing when you woke up this morning.” It’s Hughes’ big wink to the audience. Of course Ferris knew what he was doing—he planned the day so he can leave high school secure, knowing Cameron and Jeanie will be okay once he moves on.
Although Steve Almond had the best of intentions in elevating Hughes’ teen drama to the sophisticated level of a psychoanalytic teen angst therapy session, I still believe he missed the mark. The beauty of the film is in its simplicity, which is what Ferris extols all along: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.” And if you look too deep or too long, you might miss something, too.
Erin Dionne is a writer and Bread and Circus editor