When I was researching how Ferris Bueller’s Day Off had held up in the public view since the mid-1980s, I expected near-universal acclaim. After all, this story about a teenage boy cutting school for the day, is consistently included in lists of ‘Best Teen Films’, even 35 years after its release. Now that most of us are now way past the age of teenage shenanigans and nostalgia colouring our perception of the ’80s, how could we not look back fondly on this tribute to Chicago, written and directed by John Hughes?
However, the discourse seems to have taken an interesting turn about 10 years ago, on its 25th anniversary. Some critics pointed out the privilege inherent in the film, where Ferris (Matthew Broderick)—happy, popular, and pampered by his wealthy family—cuts school for fun with his pretty girlfriend (Mia Sara) and hypochondriac best friend (Alan Ruck). It was compared to other Hughes films of the era, such as The Breakfast Club (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986), and Weird Science (1985), where teens were seen to be battling ‘real’ issues—like being poor and bullying. In comparison, Ferris wasn’t a sympathetic movie hero, he was an asshole teenager, they said. And more importantly, they wondered why he was ever seen as relatable when he symbolised such specific slice of life most of us would never experience.
This was incredibly interesting to learn, especially since it’s technically true. When I re-watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off now, I couldn’t help wondering the same thing. Why do we care about Ferris? He’s cocky, reckless, and radiates ‘YOLO’ (You Only Live Once) energy in the worst way. The intense focus on Ferris through, even at the end as he manages Cameron’s breakdown, misses what could have been a larger message about parental expectations that might help struggling teens in real life.
However, this is what makes Ferris Bueller’s Day Off so good. There are films that have stronger messages to say about teen issues, and some are to be found in Hughes’ own filmography. There are also a large number of films that pinpoint the struggles and joys of being a teenager, many of them inspired by Hughes’ movies—from Easy A (2010) to Mid90s (2018) and Eighth Grade (2018). On this list, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off still stands out because it so purposefully narrows it down to a single, glorious day in an adolescent boy’s life, while making the eponymous teen so charismatic to watch despite his youthful flaws.
After all, to have written a screenplay in less than a week, and then cut it down to 103 minutes from an original cut of two-and-a-half-hours shows the power of Hughes’ vision. The film is impressively tight and there’s not a moment that lacks energy. The audience is drawn in at the beginning with Ferris breaking the fourth wall, then the film takes off running (as Ferris does), and it never lets up till the end. The audience is quickly swept along with Ferris as he brings us with him on all his shenanigans. Even if you don’t agree with Ferris’ decisions, you’re part of his team now and find yourself rooting for him. It’s an exhilarating experience, climaxing at the parade, where you wish you were Ferris on the float singing. And then there’s the inclusion of the post-credits sting, when Ferris tells you to go home. By doing this, Hughes engineers the method of helping the audience come down from the high of the experience they’ve just witnessed, but on his terms. You don’t have the time to wonder how realistic the film is, and what type of person Ferris is, because it’s built to be this ephemeral positive group experience. It was hence perfect for the cinema.
And yes, I’m saying this after re-watching it at home, but movie audiences at the time agreed. Released to praise from critics and audiences in 1986, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was one of the top-grossing films of a year that included Top Gun (1986) and Aliens (1986). The fact the film made stars of its cast also shows something about the power of the script and direction. It’s unsurprising that Broderick said in 2010 that every day someone still recognises him from this movie, and even a role like Ferris’ self-righteous sister Jeanie gets enough screen time for us to admire Jennifer Grey, who soon gained greater fame as ‘Baby’ in Dirty Dancing (1987).
In the end, looking back at Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is an odd experience. The film brings out those long-lost feelings of being a teenager, where you were constantly pulled in the direction of adulthood and responsibility while simultaneously told to slow down, “stop and look around once in a while”, and make reckless decisions. Those conflicting thoughts, which are universal even 35 years later, are then processed through our different upbringings and experiences to form our opinions, which may explain the sudden backlash in the last decade, as audiences looked for better representation of different groups and more morally-upright teenage movie heroes.
But that original feeling of euphoria and teenage rebellion? It still stays whenever I re-watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and that’s what I always relate to. The film managed to fill this hole in teenagers and adults alike of having one day in which you could escape your responsibilities and do whatever you wanted, while not thinking about the future. After all, as others have stated, if we were to think about this rationally, Ferris and Cameron probably wouldn’t have a happy ending. Ferris would probably be in a dead-end job, not married to Sloane (Mia Sara), while Cameron might have gotten disowned for ruining a priceless car. But that’s what makes this film so good, as it fabulously helps us imagine a day in which we can do this and not have a terrible day. And that’s an escapism people can connect to.
USA | 1986 | 103 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • GERMAN
Cast & Crew
writer & director: John Hughes.
starring: Matthew Broderick, Mia Sara, Alan Ruck, Jeffrey Jones, Jennifer Grey, Cindy Pickett & Lyman Ward.