The Zen of FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF

It’s a simple story: a high schooler wants to skip school for the day. But, this isn’t any kid. It’s Ferris Bueller. And, it isn’t any day off. It’s the last day this senior can skip without being held back another year. John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Planes, Trains, & Automobiles) was a master at finding the cinematic gold in everyday life and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is one of his best. I think it’s one of his most underrated films. 

A Different Kind of Teenage Movie

The film opens with Ferris (Matthew Broderick) doing an epic performance to get himself out of school, which his parents buy, to his sister’s outrage. As Ferris explains about his routine, “yes, it’s a little childish and stupid, but then again, so is high school.”

We see him basking in the freedom to do whatever strikes his fancy. He calls his school’s payphone and whoever picks up knows and adores him. Ferris isn’t a hater and he doesn’t despise school; he just has more important things to do.

Generally, films about kids who ditch school paint them as hooligans. They are angry, troubled children who suffer under the weight of their angst and discontent with society. They’re portrayed as people starting to truly be at odds with society. But Ferris is light-hearted, serene, and playful. He has a feather touch as he prepares for a fun day out in the world. Even though he’s committing a subversive act by lying to his parents and skipping school, he’s cute about it. This isn’t a budding sociopath. He’s someone who has some wisdom. He is comfortable in his own skin and clearly cares about the people around him. Hughes introduces his audience to a teenager who has a different relationship with life. As Ferris famously says, “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Going inside the high school, the film introduces his nemesis, principal Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), who’s hellbent on catching Ferris. There’s also his sister, Jeanie (Jennifer Grey), who is equally obsessed with her hatred of Ferris and wants nothing more than to see her brother suffer for his brazen disregard of the rules. 

The Zen of FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF
source: Paramount Pictures

Meanwhile, Ferris has big plans for the day. His first task is to get his uptight, high-strung and genuinely sick best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) out of bed. Cameron is the perfect best friend for Ferris. He is a bundle of nerves, hates his parents fervently, and is so uptight he’s always on the edge of a complete nervous breakdown. When Cameron proclaims to his empty, cold bedroom “I’m dying,” Ferris calls him back and says, “you’re not dying, you just can’t think of anything good to do.”

Hughes is celebrating a youthful, Pan-like kid who has a well-adjusted outlook on life. And Ferris is masterful in talking Cameron into doing crazy things. After persuading him to sneak his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) out of school, Ferris succeeds in driving them all off in Cameron’s father’s beloved –and rare – 1961 Ferrari GT California to Chicago. Though Cameron’s sick and anxious about his dad, the more time he spends with Ferris, the better he feels.

Cameron begins as a teenager from a traditional teen drama. He has real problems and his hurt is understandable. Ferris breaks the fourth wall often and addresses the viewer. He explains Cameron’s situation to the camera, demonstrating his understanding of the pain of his best friend feels. Again Hughes masterfully paints Bueller as someone who is in the world but not of it. He’s not a teenager who convinces his best friend to do crazy things for his own gain with no empathy. In each scene where Ferris talks to the audience about his long-time friend, Hughes breaks the fourth wall to demonstrate Bueller’s zen-like attitude. He’s sensitive and engaged, observing his environment with an abiding serenity. 

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was made a year after The Breakfast Club. While The Breakfast Club is an incredible and iconic film, it’s about teenage pain. Their relationship with being teenagers and being in school is difficult and full of pain. Powerlessness and the pressures of being boxed into a peer group drive the narrative. Ferris Bueller represents something else entirely.

“Let go or be dragged”

Here’s where we see a really interesting thing happen in the film. Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane go off to have a huge, rich, live-life-to-the-fullest kind of day. They sneak into a fancy restaurant, go to a ball game, an art museum, and Ferris even ends up rocking the city from a parade float for starters. We get flashes of his fellow students in a horrifically boring class and it’s clear that these days off are something that keep Ferris sane (Ben Stein solidified himself into cinematic history just taking high school attendance). It’s also clear Ferris is the beloved hero of his school, with rebellions that are never violent, angry, or hateful. Ferris is all about joyful mischief, staying focused on what’s really important in life, living like it’s his last day on earth, and absorbing all its goodness. His companions surrender to the day and let themselves float down Ferris’ wild river of experiences, and end up better for it.

The Zen of FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF
source: Paramount Pictures

Even when things go seemingly wrong for them, it’s just a catalyst for something better. For Cameron, his father has been cold, controlling, and unloving all his life. In fact, he loves the car more than his family. So, stealing it for the day is a serious offense. When they arrive back at Cameron’s – horrified by the car’s expanded mileage – Cameron unleashes his rage at his father’s abuse. In the classic scene where Cameron accidentally “kills the car,” instead of losing his mind about what his father will do to him, he finds deep peace. Instead of living in fear, control, and constant threat, he finds his power, his voice, his strength, and his confidence for the first time in his life. Cameron is finally able to articulate his pain and breakthrough it. A huge weight is lifted off him and Cameron now feels ready to face his father and not live in fear anymore. That’s the result of spending the day with Ferris. 

Nelson Mandela is quoted saying, “resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Jeanie and Principal Rooney are funny examples of this. They are consumed with ruining him and are foiled at every turn. Not by Ferris – he is much too busy enjoying his day for such nonsense – but by themselves.

As great as everything is going for Ferris, everything is going terribly wrong for the pair obsessed with taking him down. At the height of Jeanie’s plans backfiring, she’s hauled into the police station where a talk with a junkie (Charlie Sheen) changes her life forever: “so, you’re pissed off because he ditches and never gets caught. Your problem is you. You should spend a little more time dealing with yourself, a little less time worrying about what your brother does.” This is exactly what Jeanie needs to hear to put things back in perspective. Suddenly, things start going her way again and she starts to focus on making her life fun instead. When she finds her alignment with creating her own joy for life, she finds her power too. The peace she makes with Ferris is for herself, knowing it was never about him in the first place.

Principal Rooney, however, isn’t so lucky. In his obsession to take Ferris down, his life becomes progressively (and hilariously) worse. Beyond the fun premise that the principal can’t outwit this free-spirited kid, there’s also something cooler about his failure. Without a single action from Ferris, Principal Rooney undoes himself completely. It’s as if Ferris’s healthy mischief, his brilliant spirit, and wise, playful outlook on life naturally outsmarts Principal Rooney.

The Zen of FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF
source: Paramount Pictures

The people who open up to Ferris’s charms are transformed for the better and those that try to defeat it have life throw them every terrible obstacle imaginable. Ferris is embracing life in a beautiful and inspiring way. It has its own wisdom; it’s like good winning over evil by forcing the battle to stay where it’s really being raged: within the enemy’s own outlook. There’s a great scene where Sloane asks Cameron what Ferris is going to be as an adult and he answers “he’s going to be a fry cook on Mars.” Ferris’ big spirit flows with the adventure of life, whether he’s in school or not, and brings out the good in everyone who let themselves get swept up by its joyful wave.

The Wise Fool

What’s particularly important about Ferris is that he isn’t an idiot. As much as I love Forrest Gump, another film about a character who spreads goodwill effortlessly, Bueller is far from the hapless fool falling into unforeseeable luck. He brings us on his day and has intelligent conversations with us even after the credits (my favorite post-credits scene ever). There’s awareness, agency, and love. He knows what he’s doing but there’s no malice in it. By having real conversations with the viewer it’s clear that he’s a smart guy who understands that there are bigger rules to listen to in life than following all the rules all the time. He isn’t a feather in the wind; he’s more “a fry cook on mars.” Because Ferris has real intelligence, his using it to find the rhythm of joyful mischief is deeply appealing. Life doesn’t just happen to Ferris, Ferris just happens to life.

What comedies do you love that inspire you?

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is available to stream on Netflix.


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