It’s difficult to name a director more influential to the teenage film landscape than John Hughes; for that matter, it’s difficult to name a director who left such a tangible mark on Hollywood at large during the ’80s and ’90s. A single look at the most popular entries in Hughes’s filmography is enough to make his legacy crystal-clear; his most prominent writing credits are none other than the first two Home Alone films, which have famously gone down as classics in the Christmas film canon, and he also helmed the eminently satisfying The Breakfast Club, which provided a humorous yet deeply insightful perspective on high school stereotypes that both recognized and shattered them in the most cathartic way possible.
However, if — even with its anthemic Simple Minds needle-drop — The Breakfast Club wasn’t enough to make audiences in 1983 notice Hughes’s knack for consciously portraying teenage angst, rebelliousness, and spirit, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was almost certainly the film to seal the deal. Still hailed by many as one of the greatest coming-of-age films of all time, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off has left a lasting impression on both the teenage audiences who resonate more immediately with its themes, as well as the adults who still find its messages on rebelliousness and freedom as applicable to their lives as they were when they were younger. The vast majority of audiences these days define timelessness in cinema through films that are often part of the self-serious IMDb vernacular — Citizen Kane, The Godfather, The Dark Knight, and so on — but it’s worth looking at timelessness through a lighter, more carefree perspective, something that Ferris Bueller exudes with unadulterated joy from the first frame to the last.
II: The Film Itself
To start, a basic overview; we’re introduced to the precocious, fourth-wall-breaking Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick), a famed slacker at his suburban Chicago high school who decides to skip school by convincingly faking an illness to his parents, although his sister, Jeanie (Jennifer Grey), and Edward Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), the Dean of Students at Ferris’s high school, aren’t convinced. The moment Ferris’s parents both leave for work, Ferris employs the help of his girlfriend, Sloane (Mia Sara), as well as his hypochondriac friend, Cameron (Alan Ruck), so they can take a joyride through downtown Chicago together, shirking their responsibilities with youthful pizzazz and flair in the eponymous “Day Off” of the film’s title. As Jeanie and Mr. Rooney clash as they come ever closer to validating their suspicions about Ferris’s truancy, Ferris and his friends check off various key locations, landmarks, and events within Chicago itself, leading to both a sprawling travelogue through the city as well as one of the greatest odes to its vivacious culture ever put on celluloid.
The most obvious appeal to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — and perhaps the main appeal that resonated with the many critics who participated in the initial wave of praise that the film received in 1986 — is the absolutely unfiltered spirit of escapism that it embodies. Indeed, Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane’s energetic trek through the streets of Chicago is itself the film’s centerpiece, and Ferris himself — brought to life by an amazing Matthew Broderick — almost functions as a hedonistic preacher, conveying his teachings directly to the audience by obliterating the fourth wall with every chance he gets, and living these lessons to the fullest with every moment he gets to himself and with his friends. He’s a walking, talking teenage fantasy, in many respects, given his wild popularity in school and unfettered nature, and the lack of any traditional narrative conflict or structure that the film displays is a key contributor to how the film’s spirit of freedom and rebelliousness gets across. His supporting cast also is worthy of a few mentions; most notably, Alan Ruck as Cameron perfectly exudes the demeanor of a paranoid and neurotic high schooler with anxiety about his future and family, and his performance nominally improves as the film progresses, especially as Cameron shows signs of breaking through the mold he’s cast for himself and slowly regains some form of confidence.
One of the most notable moments where said spirit radiantly shines is none other than the Von Steuben Day Parade scene, in which Ferris lip-syncs to the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” as if possessed by Lennon himself, all while standing at the center of an enormous float, invigorating the crowds surrounding him. Among them are, of course, Cameron and Sloane, the former of whom Ferris directly addresses in an attempt to free him from his neurotic worries. It’s absolutely unmatched euphoria, something that must be seen to be believed — the intensity of the scene grows and grows as more people from the crowd join him, and by the time the song reaches its umpteenth chorus, balloons are flying in the air, people are collectively singing along, and everyone is literally jumping to the rhythm, all while Ferris doesn’t lose an ounce of steam. DOP Tak Fujimoto’s wide shots fill us in on the immeasurably gargantuan scope of the crowd surrounding him, while his close-ups hone in on the specific people joining along, and the quick cuts that highlight a select handful of crowd members, workers, and tourists are brisk enough to be all-encompassing, while long enough to be fully representative of the people they feature.
Other highlights from the film exist, obviously; among them is the famed Art Institute scene in which Cameron has a quiet existential crisis in front of Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” staring with a look of frozen shock into the mother and daughter featured at the center of the painting, as the camera zooms in to a microscopic degree into the minuscule weaves that make up the canvas. He’s seemingly entranced by an honest, iconic depiction of a family life he might never have at home with his neglectful and perhaps even abusive father, which in part contributes to the eventual emotional climax of the film. It’s a scene that exchanges the glee of the moments that preceded it for an instance of introspection, another freedom offered by the film’s shackle-breaking approach to adolescent rebelliousness — the realization that when you finally have time for yourself, you not only get the opportunity to properly enjoy the things around you, but also more time to look inward and reflect, unrestricted by both the responsibilities and perceptions of others.
Of course, as is the case with virtually every modern classic with this degree of cultural significance, the critical perception of this film has gradually shifted over time, and it inevitably includes several criticisms of the film’s aforementioned hedonistic tendencies. Writers, critics, and filmgoers alike have recently come out of the woodwork to point out the sheer irresponsibility of Ferris’s character, and how he’s seemingly rewarded for potentially putting everyone around him in serious jeopardy. To a very specific extent, these criticisms are certainly warranted; in fact, the only reason why Ferris is able to boldly throw away his responsibilities and worries so easily is because of the mid-upper-class suburban privilege he has, and his self-absorbed cockiness in particular can, in fact, come off as grating in a few scenes to viewers less willing to embrace his shtick.
However, it’s not like the film doesn’t acknowledge this, even if it’s certainly not the primary point of interest it wants to address — after all, very little of it is interested in the realistic consequences of Ferris and his friends’ actions, and its emotional crux is about the potential necessity of participating in a specific kind of escapism that only acknowledges the now, and holds very little concern about an uncertain future. Still, to audiences frustrated by Ferris’s antics and seeking some form of a more grounded sense of relief, it’s possible that his older sister, Jeanie — portrayed by a pitch-perfect Jennifer Grey — would be a more easily identifiable character, especially with her no-nonsense attitude and bluntly honest perspective about her younger brother’s irreverent personality, as well as her clear-cut goal of wanting Ferris to face at least some consequences for his actions. Even if she, too, undergoes certain changes to fit the film’s outlook on teenage liberation, she’s ultimately still a necessary, realistic, and much more mature foil to Ferris’s lotus-eating tendencies that is readily and fully utilized as a source of conflict in the narrative, especially towards the film’s witty and absurdly satisfying conclusion.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off‘s lasting impact can easily be seen in the legions of high school films and teenage comedies that have emerged over the past few years with similar messages about teenage rebellion, but it’s all to varying degrees of success. On one end of the spectrum are surprisingly perceptive films about adolescent angst such as Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade — on the other are wildly inept failures to appeal to a younger demographic, the likes of which are difficult to list without inadvertently tainting John Hughes’s name by association. One way or the other, however, the catharsis and the appeals to rebelliousness that Ferris Bueller brings to the table have been utterly historic in how universally resonant they’ve become, with audiences of all ages finding ways to connect and identify with Ferris’s troupe of misfits, even considering the reckless yet somewhat appealing abandon of absolutely everything they do.
After all, the notion of setting aside your responsibilities for one day and doing whatever you want to do is innately bound to strike a chord with anyone burdened by whatever they need to do, whether it’s a college prep exam that needs extra studying for, or in later years, the stress of working in a 9-to-5 job to barely scrape by and pay off the bills. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is one of the few films daring enough to take this freedom to the absolute limit, and for that matter, it’s easily the most successful when it comes to how many filmgoers of various ages and demographics it’s touched over the decades since its release. “Life moves pretty fast,” indeed, and with it comes changes that are easy to miss, but 35 years after its theatrical release, the universal appeal of Ferris’s mission has, and most likely always will, stay exactly the same.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? Comment down below!
If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to MovieBabble via email to stay up to date on the latest content.
Join MovieBabble on Patreon so that new content will always be possible.