30 years ago today, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off hit theaters…and senior quote pages have never been the same. Seriously, how many times have high schoolers used “life moves pretty fast…” as their quote to live by? It might have been even worse in my high school because I literally went to the high school featured in the movie; Ferris Bueller’s shadow existed from the minute you drove into the parking lot or walked through the halls. John Hughes went to my high school and by all accounts was closer to school ditching Ferris than most of his characters, part of the reason he turned down alumni of the year awards…he didn’t really like high school. But he liked the social life of high school; or more importantly he liked looking through a serious lens of high school society to get the authentic perspective of his teenage audiences on film.
Which is why Ferris Bueller’s long-lasting success is so odd within his too short career. Sixteen Candles is now considered about as dated as Revenge of the Nerds, while Pretty in Pink and Breakfast Club are all pretty serious, almost melodramatic movies. And then there’s Ferris Bueller, a pretty broad, harmless comedy that barely shows “high school” society. On the page, our main character of Ferris would be closer to the characters of The Nerd in Sixteen Candles or Duckie in Pretty in Pink. And like both those characters, Ferris can be pretty obnoxious. Think about it…he’s a spoiled, self-entitled kid version of an 80s yuppie who complains that his parents (who clearly give him a pretty sweet allowance) won’t also buy him a car (oh, poor baby). And he’s our hero?
Well, no, he’s really not this movie’s hero. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a strange title considering that you really think about the way the movie’s laid out, this is Cameron Frye’s story…not Ferris’. And I’m not talking about the current Nerdist theory that Ferris is Cameron’s Tyler Durden. I think he’s supposed to be a real character; I even think he’s the narrator. But the hero of the movie, the character’s odyssey, really is Cameron Frye’s to go on. And I would argue, Cameron Frye might be the best teen character John Hughes ever created.
As played by Alan Ruck (probably the most underappreciated contributor to this movie), Cameron is a rare character in a teenage movie. Ferris is the most popular guy in school (a real Zack Morris), and Sloane the likable (although initially nonspecific) girlfriend. Cameron has been described as the sidekick, but in this school he seems to be the invisible kid. No one asks about him in the halls the way they are concerned about Ferris. And principal dumb-dumb (seriously, the worst character) never even thinks about the fact that both Ferris and Cameron are out sick. He goes way overboard when he realizes Sloane’s out, but never even considers who Ferris’ best friend is and looking into that absence? Because Cameron’s not unpopular, he just goes unnoticed entirely…so invisible he can’t even be the main character of his own movie.
Cameron starts out like a lot of male comedic leads in screwball comedies…passive, weak, emasculated and figuratively dead to the world. Cameron literally says during his introduction “I’m dying” as his manic pixie dream best friend Ferris insists he get up and go on an adventure with him. Ferris is a bit of the manic pixie dream girl type in this movie…breaking rules but showing Cameron the beauty of the real world. And as a lot of those movies complain about those types of girls, Ferris is a static character, while Cameron shows significant growth throughout.
In the beginning of the movie, Cameron seems to be subconsciously letting himself get manipulated by Ferris…if you were to ask him, Ferris made him do all the stuff he’s about to do. But really, he’s a willing participant. And despite Ferris being a pretty decent friend (although often inconsiderate and does kick him that one time) Cameron’s reaction to orders from Ferris are similar to how he reacts to the father we hear about. He’s ordered to do things and even when he protests, he’s passive in response and goes along with things. Ferris has literally spent seven years trying to push Cameron out of his comfort zone, but they’ve gotten nowhere. Even their brief argument when Ferris hits him happens to be the way a 10-year-old talks, saying “I’m going home” but easily swayed with a half-hearted apology. Cameron “allows” Ferris to convince him to take the car and go to Chicago, but at any point he could have just refused.
So the question is, does he fear losing Ferris’ friendship or does he want to rebel…probably both. Even watching this time I wrote the note, I doubt they’re still friends. Not because Cameron’s not a good friend but because Ferris already seems a little checked out of their relationship and fed up with Cameron when the movie starts. He even says they have one last summer and then they’ll go their separate ways. Even if the events that transpire change and deepen their relationship going forward, when it starts, this friendship seems like it’s losing steam. But as the passive one, Cameron also wants to be pushed to do things. He can claim a degree of innocence (even though we know from observing Ferris’ parents, Cameron will be in bigger trouble), but it also builds an animosity towards Ferris comparable to the feelings he has for his own father.
And Cameron seems to have a pretty bad home life. We don’t get a lot of details, and considering the scale, Cameron’s home life is somewhat mysterious. We don’t hear specific stories the way we do in Breakfast Club or see home life. But throughout the movie, the parents’ effect on Cameron keeps being addressed. Ferris’ entire “proposal” to Sloane at the stock exchange’s really just an excuse to learn more about Cameron’s home life; that his parents are married but hate each other and the car a physical embodiment of his father’s hatred of the family. And there are a lot of scenes that end focusing on Cameron…not Ferris. Cameron’s the last one to comment during the Sears Tower and Stock Exchange scenes, Ferris ends lunch talking about Cameron’s home life. And in one of the few emotional scenes in the movie, he’s seen looking at the Sunday in the Park painting…starring at a blank faced child. I’m sure there are dozens of readings of that scene, but Cameron’s sense of invisibility in the world and that faceless child always struck me as his emotional turning point in the movie. He recognizes his passiveness, and doesn’t like it.
This is when he becomes self-aware in the movie. There is a difference in Cameron (much to Alan Ruck’s credit), he takes on a different behavior in the second half. In the cab, he still wants to go get the car, but there is almost an aggressiveness to his pessimism; like he hates not being able to enjoy his life. And we see that he has more charisma than we initially realized. I would argue Cameron and Sloane have MUCH more chemistry than Ferris and Sloane ever do, because Sloane shows more personality with Cameron than when she’s playing the role of Ferris Bueller’s girlfriend. And they have the significant conversation while Ferris “performs on the float” about their future, and fear bringing him nothing but more fear. Telling Sloane he fears the future suddenly opens him up and he’s actually laughing and talking (a lot) when they finally get the car back.
But Cameron doesn’t just get a day off from his life…he’s actually forced to change his life. The parking employees added 3,000 miles to that “choice” Ferrari (by the way, anyone notice cool Ferris took a urine mint in that scene?) and Cameron has to face the consequences (of course) that go beyond just a car. But the more interesting thing about this movie, and why Cameron is Hughes’ best teen character is the density he shows when he comes to that realization. Even his fake out in the pool with Ferris (getting him back for those seven years) starts Cameron’s rebellion not as a teenager, but suggests he’s going to become a man. He won’t be the doormat in his family that translated to his relationship with peers, and from what his best friend says, will go onto impact his relationship with women. Now he declares indefinitely “I am not going to sit on my ass as the events that affect me unfold to determine the course of my life. I’m going to take a stand. I’m going to defend it. Right or wrong, I’m going to defend it.” Which actually is one of the nicest lines Hughes ever wrote (he gave nothing that meaty to Ferris). Nor did he give Ferris a scene this significant and identifiable to teens.
I would argue that despite being one of the less involved scenes in the movie (one location), it is the most memorable. Because while the extreme of “killing a car” is, well, an extreme form of rebellion, it does have significant meaning. And despite being, like Ferris, a poor little rich kid, we have empathy for Cameron’s home struggle; it helps that we only hear about Cameron’s home life, because we can attach the version we’ve seen before. His painful struggle (again, I can’t give enough credit to Ruck’s sad performance in some of these scenes) becomes universal and identifiable, so when we finally see him stand up, it feels heroic. Especially when, unlike scheming Ferris, he won’t hide from consequences but take them on directly. Standing tall and with a smile on his face, directly to his manipulative friend and indirectly to his father, Cameron says ”If I didn’t want it I wouldn’t have let you take the car out this morning. I could’ve stopped you. It is possible to stop Mr. Ferris Bueller, you know. No. I want it. I’m gonna take it. When Morris comes home, he and I will just have a little chat. It’s cool. No, it’s gonna be good. Thanks anyway.”
Honestly, I’ve always wished this movie would have just ended with that line rather than tacked on that last 15 minutes. Sure it would have been open-ended, but that is how Cameron’s story is left for the audience, and it is satisfying because he makes the ultimate step in the right direction…the repercussions don’t really matter because we know he can take them. But because our hero, Cameron, had such a good scene to conclude his story arc, everything else is kind of a letdown. It’s nice to see Jennifer Grey smiley and funny with the stoner. But Ferris running to beat his parents’ home, when his best friend’s about to take responsibility, shows how immature and undeveloped that character still is. And I don’t really care about the relationship between Sloane and Ferris nearly as much as I care about Cameron and Ferris’ friendship (and Sloane’s own friendship with Cameron). The movie doesn’t end on a high note because we end with Ferris’ static character.
When Siskel and Ebert reviewed this movie on their TV show, Ebert rather astutely saw the same thing I see now…“this is a sweet, innocent heartwarming little movie about a kid trying to help his friend win some self-respect.” Whether Hughes thought it or not, that is the movie he created. A true relationship bromance in the tradition of screwball comedies about one eccentric awaking the docile friend to life (Harold and Maude, My Man Godfrey, Bringing Up Baby). And we’ve even seen those platonic friendships plenty of times since (TV’s Boy Meets World, Bottle Rocket, Whitenail, Swingers, Mistress America and I, and 1986’s other hit, Stand By Me). But it’s rare to make the character so passive as Cameron (I can think only of Henry Fool) that the director essentially tricks audiences into believing we’ll be following the title character, but are actually quietly (possibly even subconsciously) following another. But that’s what John Hughes did with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, when he made audiences think they were on a trip with Ferris…but were really watching the coming of age of Cameron Frye.