I wasn’t 18 yet when I saw John Hughes’ seminal teen comedy at the cinema, but already sensed that this would prove something of a high-water mark for the genre; Hughes was deeply interested in what makes young people tick, and was already building up quite a reputation as a chronicler of the younger generation via Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and more. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is one of his breeziest films, a light, colourful and delightfully freewheeling view of the lives of high schoolers in the suburban environs of Chicago circa 1986
What’s at stake here? Almost nothing; the biggest plot point here is that the film’s central character, Cameron (Alan Ruck) may have to explain to his father why there’s damage to his prize Ferrari. The responsibility for the damage is largely on Cameron’s smart-alec pal Ferris, who is taking a sick day in his final year of high school, and despite being remarkably well-heeled in terms of computers and synths, remains in need of a stylish ride for him and his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara). Ferris is a popular figure, beloved by his class-mates, but with some real issues with authority; he’s a rebel, but one with a cause. ‘A person should not believe in an ism, he should believe in himself.’ Ferris cheerfully agrees with John Lennon, and as the trio head off for an eventful day in the Windy City, their secret goal is to think for themselves and question all manner of authority. With towers to climb, parades to join, baseball games to attend, posh maître de’s to deflate and more, it’s never boring when Ferris is around…
Probably the best example of a film that manages to consistently and deliberately break the fourth wall, Hughes’ film features a number of characters who address the audience, even if only with a resigned look. Ferris himself isn’t shy about sharing his inner thoughts, which do seem unnaturally wise for a generation of teens usually preoccupied with team sports and shower-room spying. But Ferris isn’t as fixated on sex as his peers; he’s about living life to the full and inspiring others to do the same, and that’s where Cameron’s conflict comes in. This is a culturally literate film; it’s hard to complain about things being dumbed down when Cameron’s silent communion with George Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte proves to be a crucial pivot.
If Ferris can seem like something of a smart-ass, that’s allowed given that his plans are so satisfyingly ingenious; he runs rings around principal Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) and his assistant, played by the Edie McClurg with a permanent supply of pencils behind her ear. And this day off also takes time to give agency to Ferris’ sister Jeanie (Jennifer Grey) who finds her own groove making out with a bad boy (yes, who else but Charlie Sheen!) in a police station, much to her mother’s annoyance. There’s more than a handful of stone-cold classic scenes here, starting with the art gallery visit set to the Dream Academy’s cover of the Smith’s Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want, part of a great, never-published soundtrack. Throw in the rousing parade sing-alongs, the accidental destruction of the ‘dad’s joy’ Ferrari; this seemed like a pleasing movie back in 1986, in 2022, it seems almost profound. Life moves pretty fast, and if you don’t take a moment to look around, maybe you could miss it. In the grim times we’re living in, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off still works like a cure to stave the blues away.