Film discussion

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) – Teen Movie Rewind

In our Teen Movie Rewind series, we explore coming of age stories and teen cinema, looking at the impact of the films themselves and the careers that they made.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, John Hughes’ fourth film as a director in the space of two years, would mark his last teen film in the director’s chair. His subsequent films as director would be either be more family-based comedies such as Uncle Buck (which did boast one teen character amongst its younger cast) or more middle-aged driven comedies such as Planes, Trains and Automobiles, both of which were films that would see Hughes develop a key working relationship with the late, great John Candy.

As for his last outing as a director of a teen film (although not as a writer, as Some Kind of Wonderful would be released the following year), Hughes would deliver not only a high watermark of the genre but also one of the very best comedies of the decade; a brilliant high-concept piece of wish fulfilment that would play well with a teen audience and also manage to become somewhat deeper with the passage of time.

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Ferris Bueller may be the lead character – it is his film after all and we’re made very much aware of that by his constant fourth-wall breaking – but he also proves to be a somewhat fascinating litmus test, depending on how old you are when you watch it. Bueller can be a brilliant wish fulfilment character to enjoy when one is actually a teenager, or he can be a cocky piece of arrogance when one is over the age of twenty-one. But what is superb about Hughes’ script and the storytelling is that the supporting cast, in particular the character of Cameron, played Alan Ruck, make it stand the test of time.

It’s the character of Cameron (and the following year’s Plane, Trains and Automobiles, along with John Candy’s performance as that film’s Del Griffith), that indicated Hughes’ furthering interest in more grounded comic characters. Bueller himself is a heightened figure who could only exist in a movie, and where previously Hughes allowed his nerdier characters to win the day and the girls, albeit under problematic circumstances, Bueller is the popular kid who also happens to be something of a nice person.

Sure, he’s cockier than any movie character ever, but as Principal Mooney’s assistant Grace (the wonderful Edie McClurg) brilliantly puts it in one of the film’s many brilliantly delivered pieces of dialogue (and this is arguably Hughes’ finest script amongst his teen film offerings), Bueller is popular with everyone in school because he’s a “righteous dude”. He’s not the jock, nor is he quite the nerd, he just happens to be the so-called coolest person ever and everyone loves him for it. Well, except for his sister, Jeanie, played with determined antagonism by Jennifer Grey.

While Bueller is the cool centre of the film, its heart comes from Cameron. Ruck’s performance is without a doubt the best thing about the film, and that’s saying a lot because while one can criticise Bueller for either being unrealistic or annoying, the film is genuinely the most charming of Hughes’ teen cinema output and resistance proves very futile to its comedic nature.

The brilliance of the film doesn’t come just from the comedy, though. Cameron comes from a very upper-class background, and the house he lives in is large and his dad owns a cool Ferrari that proves instrumental to many of the movie’s events, but there are also darker emotional underpinnings to his life. The words bullying and abuse are never used, but the character is clearly afraid of his father, who is never seen on-screen, but the references to him are clearly meant to mark the character out as one we should be glad we never do see.

Cameron himself is the one character who legitimately changes and develops, and it’s this element that forever makes the film one worth revisiting, even after one has grown beyond being part of the teen audience that it is aimed at. Bueller himself never changes. A lot does around him, including his sister who has a change of heart at the end of the film and finally allows him to get one over the antagonistic Principal Mooney (Jeffrey Jones) come the very end of the film. And yet it’s Cameron who forever remains the engaging soul of the narrative and whose character feels like he legitimately changes.

A deserved smash hit at the box office, Bueller is equal to The Breakfast Club in being the most famous Hughes teen film and the most iconic. While the previous teen movies that came from the Hughes’ stable shared performers in front of the camera, from Ringwald to Anthony Michael Hall, there is a clean slate feeling to everything here. Very few of Hughes’ regulars appear amongst the cast, which is made up of fresh faces such as Broderick, Ruck and Mia Sara.

Similarly to The Breakfast Club, there is a high concept comedic tone to the whole thing. Hughes seemed to get a kick out of setting many of his films over a short time frame, sometimes a few hours, sometimes no more than a few days, and given the title and the story, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is no exception. The film begins brazenly light and confident, but through Cameron hints at darker realities before leaving the audience with a sense of hope for the future, all the while never negating the experiences learned along the way.

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The bittersweet qualities that come from the ending are amplified by the fact that Hughes was on the verge of saying goodbye to this genre. Some Kind of Wonderful would premiere a year later, but it was in effect Hughes trying to reclaim the original ending of Pretty in Pink from earlier in the year, and that film would be directed by the returning Howard Deutch.

While there is one more teen film in the Hughes’ cannon to go, the brazenly comedic tone, serious underpinnings and genuine sense of originality here feel like a goodbye from the director to the genre he helped further legitimize and would influence for years and decades to come. Along with the antics of The Breakfast Club, it’s his most iconic and famous work for sure, with lines of dialogue, scenes and set-pieces being amongst the most famous of the decade and the genre, with even smaller side characters such as Ben Stein’s Economics Teacher becoming borderline iconic thanks to his monotone delivery of his lines – “Bueller? Anyone? Anyone?”.

Not only is this one of the best teen movies of the decade – and of all time – it is also one of the absolute best Hollywood comedies of the eighties.

One comment

  1. Thanks for the write-up! Yes, the genius of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is that it’s not at all about Ferris Bueller’s day off. It’s about tentatively stepping into the adult world (as witnessed by excursions to the art gallery and a snooty restaurant), including accepting the responsibilities of genuine friendship. Cameron is caught in a dark spot and Ferris helps him experience brighter possibilities. These aspects only emerge when viewing the film through more adult eyes. As Sloane tells Ferris, “you knew what you were doing when you woke up this morning, didn’t you.”

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