As I was watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in preparation for a trip to Chicago, I realized that this movie is not Ferris’ story, it’s Cameron’s, and to a lesser extent Jeanie’s and Mr. Rooney’s.
We’ve all been told in school that stories need conflict. There should be tension and something that moves the main character to action to resolve that tension, thereby rendering a change in them whether it’s sad to happy, happy to sad, loser to victor, etc.
Ferris Bueller’s story has none of those things. Ferris lives life sans consequences. He skips school without getting caught while catching foul balls at Wrigley. He doesn’t even have to try to get the girl during the movie: Ferris and Sloane are already dating at the beginning of the movie, and she still likes him at the end. There is conflict between Ferris and Jeanie—and between Ferris and Rooney—but in both cases the conflict is one-sided and created by Rooney’s and Jeanie’s contempt for Ferris’ charmed life.
Hello, Jeanie. Who’s bothering you now?
Jeanie and Ferris are not on screen together except for a few seconds at the beginning and at the end during the Jeanie, Ferris, and Rooney climax. Ferris is not a part of Jeanie’s struggle to find out what makes him so special.
What Jeanie despises is that Ferris can get away with anything while she can’t. She can’t even enlist the help of Mr. Rooney because he’s away from school consumed with finding her brother.
Jeanie’s conflict starts to resolve because of her fateful meeting with Charlie Sheen’s character inside the police department. He helps Jeanie realize that she is the problem, not Ferris. He says she should “spend more time dealing with [herself], and little less time worrying about what [her] brother does.”
She leaves the police station in a very non-Jeanie like state—laughing and giddy, despite how angry her mother is with her. Jeanie’s issues aren’t completely resolved yet as she still tries to race home before Ferris can get there, so their mother will catch Ferris out of the house.
Pucker up, buttercup.
The conflict between Ferris and Rooney is obvious: Ferris is the truant student and Rooney is the principle. Rooney believes that Ferris is a bad example for the entire student body, and as Grace points out to Rooney, “He makes you look like an ass is what he does, Ed.” Rooney is intent on holding Ferris back another year as punishment, largely for embarrassing him. As he says, there are 1500 “Ferris Beuller disciples” in the school, while nobody likes him. They write “Save Ferris” on their notebooks, and “Rooney Eats It” on the bus.
Like the situation with Jeanie, this conflict plays itself out without participation of Ferris. Ferris and Rooney are only on screen together for a few moments at the end of the movie.
A completely down-trodden Rooney finally confronts Ferris on the door step to Ferris’ parents’ house. It finally looks like Ferris is out of luck, but he is rescued by a now-sympathetic Jeanie.
Jeanie arrived home from the police station in time to overhear Rooney threatening Ferris with another year of high school. Perhaps it was a realization that she and Ferris do have something in common—an enemy in Rooney—and the fact that she has leverage against Rooney, and will for the rest of her school career since he broke into their house, that moves her to rescue Ferris. (I think the best reason here would’ve been because she didn’t want to spend another year in the same school as Ferris, but I don’t think that’s the case.)
During this climax Ferris doesn’t say a word. In classic Ferris fashion all his problems are solved without any effort from him. Jeanie is apparently over her issues at this point, and she forces Rooney to cease and desist.
Jeanie’s conflict was resolved and a change occurred with her. She went from trying to get Ferris caught to rescuing him from the person who caught him. Rooney’s quest for Ferris left him bloodied, carless, and utterly defeated. He is forced to join the Ferris’ disciples on the school bus to be offered warm gummy bears. Rooney’s transition leaves him near rock bottom as the credits roll. Jeanie and Cameron are what happen when the necessary changes are made, and Mr. Rooney is what happens when they aren’t.
And Ferris is still just Ferris.
You’re not dying, you just can’t think of anything good to do.
The only reference to a “day off” in the movie is Ferris telling the viewers that “If anyone needs a day off, it’s Cameron,” hinting at what we should really be paying attention too. He also tells Cameron “I’m not doing this for me, I’m doing this for you,” as he is trying to get Cam out of the house.
Ferris’ goal was to give Cameron one good day while helping him to deal with his fear. Ferris of course achieves the first part leaving Cameron to say “It’s the best day of my life.” While in the men’s room of Chez Quis, Ferris points out that he “caught Cameron digging the ride once or twice. It’s good for him, it teaches him to deal with his fear.” Of course, Ferris was planning on taking the miles off the car at the end of the day, so he wasn’t expecting Cameron to have to fully overcome his fear by confronting his father.
My old man pushes me around. I never say anything.
Ferris’ great plan of running the car in reverse to take the miles off doesn’t work. That may be the only thing Ferris fails at in the movie. This mistake still doesn’t make Ferris relatable to us normies however, because Ferris’ charm isn’t in being perfect, it’s in not having to deal with consequences. That is the case with the car too, as Cameron says he will take all the heat for taking it out of the garage.
With the miles not coming off, Cameron won’t be able to hide the fact that he took the car from his dad. He now has to confront his father. Ferris and Sloane stand by silently as Cameron starts to deal with his feelings out in the open which leads to the primary climax of him “killing the car.”
Now Cameron has the choice to continue in his old ways or stand up to his dad. The biggest change in the movie is Cameron realizing that he wants to, and can handle taking a stand against his father. Cameron says, “I am not gonna sit on my ass as the events that effect me unfold to determine the course of my life.” Like Jeanie, Cameron is starting to take control. He comes to the same conclusion that he needs to switch the focus to himself. He says his dad’s “not the problem. I’m the problem.” Cameron is the problem because he is not taking control of his own life, and is letting his father walk all over him.
Ferris of course just goes home after Cameron destroys the Ferrari where his parents make him soup. Ferris tells us we should deal with our fears, but Cameron actually has to go through it.
I have always liked Cameron as a character, but after watching again with the idea that the movie is his story, he is now one of my favorite movie characters, and the scene of him at The Art Institute standing in front of the Georges Seurat painting is now my favorite scene in the movie.
Perhaps my focus switched over to Cameron because as we get older we are looking for people to relate to, and when we’re younger we’re looking for people we want to be. Ferris’ life is a fantasy. We eventually learn we aren’t charmed, and we want someone like Cameron to commiserate that loss.
Ferris is the focus of a story that’s not about him. Until this last viewing I too let Ferris overshadow the real story, even though he tries to tell us it’s really Cameron’s day off and how worried he’ll be if “things don’t change for [Cameron].”Ferris draws us as viewers in with his charisma, not to mention he is the title character. If we’re not careful, we’ll miss the lessons learned by Cameron and Jeanie, and become just like all “the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads,” and our adoration will draw focus from where it should be.
Even though, come on, he is a righteous dude.