“Ladies and gentlemen, you’re such a wonderful crowd. We’d like to play a little tune for you. It’s one of my personal favorites, and I’d like to dedicate it to a young man who doesn’t think he’s seen anything good today. Cameron Frye, this one’s for you.”
Whittling over a century of film down to one—to your absolute Favorite Movie of All Time, the one you’d bring to that hypothetical desert island everyone’s always talking about—is serious business, a nearly impossible choice. But for me, it’s always been Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Other movies are funnier, more culturally significant, more original, sure, but Ferris Bueller feels like something I’ve inherited—a constant, a security blanket of a movie not just to me, but to so many that it’s become a cliche, referenced by rock stars in interviews and quoted in yearbooks by three decades of high-school seniors.
I can’t remember the first time I saw it. It’s existed longer than I have—released 30 years ago tomorrow, two years before I was born—and in many ways it feels like I’ve always seen it, like the moment I popped out of my mom’s womb and into north suburban Chicago I started absorbing it via osmosis. I know it was before I was in braces because I used to annoy my mom by saying, “Hey, Shermer! Like in Ferris Bueller!” every time we drove past Shermer Road, the street John Hughes named the movie’s fictional town after, on the way to my orthodontist’s office, and in high school I quietly delighted every time my softball team had a road game at Glenbrook North, where the exterior school scenes were shot. Over the years, it became my go-to movie for whenever I was homesick or home sick (for obvious reasons).
But that’s hardly unique to me. Ferris Bueller has endured because it’s universal. There’s not a man or woman on this planet who hasn’t, at one point or another, woken up with the desire to ditch their responsibilities and just do whatever the hell they please. Of all Hughes’ teen masterpieces, it’s arguably the most adult; Sixteen Candles is about feeling like nobody sees you, and The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink are about the way other people see you and how that affects how you see yourself, but Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is about seeing the world, and its carpe diem message rings just as true for Ferris’ dad, dancing alone in his office, as it does for his parade float-hijacking son.
In many ways, it’s the ultimate fantasy because—let’s face it—as much as we idolize Ferris, most of us are Camerons. Ferris is a folk hero; he’s charismatic, bold, good enough with a computer (in 1986!) to hack into the school’s system and change his number of absences from nine to two. He knows what he wants, and he seems to have figured out how to get it. He’s a Timothy Leary for the Reagan era, turned on, tuned in and dropped out while his classmates are stuck listening to Ben Stein drone on about trickle-down economics. Like Cameron says, “As long as I’ve known him, everything works for him.” For a good chunk of the movie, he feels less like a real person and more like a benign devil perched atop our shoulder—he’s a rebel, but ultimately he’s harmless. How can you argue with “Life moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it”?
There’s also a certain amount of unbelievable privilege at play that adds to the fantasy. Many of us can’t afford to take a day off, and Hughes makes it obvious throughout the film that these kids come from serious money. (How many high schoolers do you know who have enough cash to cover a trip to the top of the Sears Tower, lunch at one of the fanciest restaurants in the city, several hours of parking in a lot downtown, a Cubs game and admission to the Art Institute? Ferris whines about not having a car, but he somehow has more disposable income than I do as an adult after 30 years of inflation.) But the movie’s wealthiest character (Cameron, with his dad’s vintage Ferrari and that absurd house in Highland Park with the glass garage) is also its most damaged, and that’s no accident.
Cameron is Ferris’ foil—awkward, unsure of himself, the source of all the movie’s pathos—and it’s ultimately his story that elevates Ferris Bueller’s Day Off from good to great. Ferris fills us in on his home situation via direct address throughout the movie, and Cameron himself talks about it while they’re hanging out at the Chicago Board of Trade (the one truly unrealistic activity in the movie, a setting that seems less like a place three teens would want to visit for shits and giggles and more like an intentional backdrop for him to talk about his miserable family and imply that money can’t buy happiness). But the real turning point in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—the first time we get the sense that, like all John Hughes movies, it’s a lot deeper than it lets on—is that moment Cameron has staring at “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” in the Art Institute.
That look of fear and wonder in his eyes as he realizes that the beautiful work of art he’s been admiring is actually just a bunch of tiny little dots is really the set-up for the movie’s entire third act, where Cameron stops being afraid and takes a stand and the mythical Ferris Bueller gets knocked down a few pegs. Those dots hold the key, because it’s not just that painting—Cameron comes to realize that everything in life, the good and the bad, is just dots. His cold mother and the father he fears so deeply? Dots—just a bunch of molecules. Ed Rooney and the other authority figures he’s grown to quietly resent? Dots. Even Ferris—he can rally an entire city around himself to the point that “Save Ferris” is displayed on the Wrigley Field marquee, but he’s dots, too.
And that’s a little scary, sure, but it’s also remarkably freeing, and it helps Cameron grow a spine in the end, pranking the seemingly unflappable Ferris by pretending to drown in the pool (and even offering a ruthlessly sarcastic “Ferris Bueller, my hero” when his freaked-out pal pulls him up), taking out years of frustration out on the bumper of his dad’s Ferrari and ultimately accepting the heat that’s inevitably coming his way. “When Morris gets home, he and I will just have a little chat,” he says, smiling, less than 12 hours after he was lying in bed moaning “I’m dying.” Meanwhile, Ferris actually has a slightly less charmed end to the movie. We see vulnerability from him for the first time when Cameron is catatonic poolside, and for the first time he expresses uncertainty about his future. Just like any high school senior, he’s worried about what comes next—he’s convinced he and Cameron will go their separate ways once they go to different colleges, worried that Cameron will marry the first girl he sleeps with and be stuck in a loveless marriage like his parents, and worried about what’ll happen with him and Sloane. “She still has another year of high school,” he tells the camera. “How do I deal with that?”
Suddenly his marriage proposal to her seems less like a badass move by the coolest kid in school and more like a desperate grasp at something we all know the odds are stacked against, and we finally start to see the dots that make up Ferris Bueller. Even his final fate—Will our hero get home before his parents do, or will Principal Rooney catch him first?—lies totally in the hands of his jealous sister, Jeannie, who is feeling merciful after making out with/getting life lessons from Charlie Sheen in the police station.
All of this feels a little like nihilism, but remember, Ferris Bueller doesn’t believe in -isms. “-Isms, in my opinion, are not good,” he tells us in his opening monologue. “A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon, ‘I don’t believe in Beatles; I just believe in me.’” Jeannie learns the same thing from dead-eyed Sheen at the station waiting for her mom: “You ought to spend a little more time dealing with yourself, a little less time worrying about what your brother does.” In other words, all we can do once we hit adolescence and realize the truth about everything we’ve built up in our heads prior to that point as being larger than life—the beautiful, the terrifying, the awe-inspiring, the tragic, the charming kid who can effortlessly pull off a leopard-print vest—is do the best we can with our own dots and try to arrange them into something great.
That’s the real beauty of this particular collection of dots, why people will be staring at it for the next 30 years and beyond. Life moves pretty fast, and you have to stop and look around, but how you look at it is the really important part, how you choose to answer when an incredulous Ferris asks, “What have you seen today?” while his dad sits oblivious in the next cab. You can watch it when you’re bored and looking to see someone live a little, or you can watch it when life kicks the shit out of you and you feel how Rooney looks at the end when he climbs aboard that school bus—but either way, you stopped, you looked and you saw something good, and that’s a day well spent.