How Ferris Bueller’s Day Off nails the adolescent experience

As it turns 30 years old, here’s why the ultimate film about playing truant still feels so true.

Nikki Baughan

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

Thirty years after its original release in 1986, John HughesFerris Bueller’s Day Off looks like one of the classic movies about the teenage experience, as relevant to today’s Snapchatting kidults as it was to those coming of age in the era of Pac Man.

This enduring popularity is thanks to its simple story – teenage boy throws a sicky and embarks on a day of mayhem around Chicago – energetic cast and quotable dialogue, but also because, underneath the knockabout comedy, Hughes absolutely nails the in-between psychology of adolescents. No longer children and not yet adults, titular anti-hero Ferris (Matthew Broderick) and his socially awkward friend Cameron (a superb Alan Ruck, to whom the film actually belongs) – and, to a lesser extent, jealous sister Jeanie (Jennifer Gray) – use this single day of wild abandon to better understand their place in the world.

Their struggles with self-confidence, identity and finding one’s path through life are as resonant today as they ever were; and, perhaps, in this age of constant interaction, oversharing and scrutiny, even more deeply felt. Indeed, anyone who is, or has ever been, a teen can surely recognise Hughes’ genius and insight, as evidenced in these key moments.

Parents are there to guide us through our teenage years, sure, but they are also there to be played. Ferris is a master of manipulation for his own ends, and when he pulls a sicky his parents are the first of many to fall for his considerable charms.

Parents are there to guide us through our teenage years, sure, but they are also there to be played. Ferris is a master of manipulation for his own ends, and when he pulls a sicky his parents are the first of many to fall for his considerable charms.

Sibling rivalry is at its most potent during adolescence, with hormones and a burning sense of entitlement adding to the fray. Jeanie’s (Jennifer Grey) white-hot anger that younger brother Ferris continually gets away with things she dares not do herself drives her increasingly erratic determination to bring him down at any cost.

Sibling rivalry is at its most potent during adolescence, with hormones and a burning sense of entitlement adding to the fray. Jeanie’s (Jennifer Grey) white-hot anger that younger brother Ferris continually gets away with things she dares not do herself drives her increasingly erratic determination to bring him down at any cost.

Teenagers are notoriously self-involved, and tend to think they are at the centre of any story. They are often wrong and – despite his starry behaviour – Ferris is no exception.

Teenagers are notoriously self-involved, and tend to think they are at the centre of any story. They are often wrong and – despite his starry behaviour – Ferris is no exception.

Teens’ seemingly innate ability to master technology enables them to stay one step ahead of the older generation. In the days before the internet, mobile phones and social media, Ferris utilises an array of gadgets, including computers, hi-fis, answerphones and intercoms, to pull off his audacious scheme.

Teens’ seemingly innate ability to master technology enables them to stay one step ahead of the older generation. In the days before the internet, mobile phones and social media, Ferris utilises an array of gadgets, including computers, hi-fis, answerphones and intercoms, to pull off his audacious scheme.

Cameron: ‘He’ll keep calling me, he’ll keep calling me until I come over. He’ll make me feel guilty. OK, I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go.’ Your best friend can be your worst enemy. Ferris’s sheer force of will sees the reluctant, bed-ridden Cameron capitulate to his demands, at enormous emotional cost. Overcome with rage at his own weakness he beats up his already beat-up car; a motif that will be returned to in the film’s dramatic climax.

Cameron: ‘He’ll keep calling me, he’ll keep calling me until I come over. He’ll make me feel guilty. OK, I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go.’ Your best friend can be your worst enemy. Ferris’s sheer force of will sees the reluctant, bed-ridden Cameron capitulate to his demands, at enormous emotional cost. Overcome with rage at his own weakness he beats up his already beat-up car; a motif that will be returned to in the film’s dramatic climax.

Worse still, Ferris pinches Cameron’s father’s priceless 1961 Ferrari despite Cameron’s pleas for him not to, mainly because Ferris is self-obsessed to the point of being an asshole. Cameron, by contrast, is a fairly normal teenager, totally insecure, and debilitated by anxiety and paranoia. The film is fundamentally about his journey to self-acceptance.

Worse still, Ferris pinches Cameron’s father’s priceless 1961 Ferrari despite Cameron’s pleas for him not to, mainly because Ferris is self-obsessed to the point of being an asshole. Cameron, by contrast, is a fairly normal teenager, totally insecure, and debilitated by anxiety and paranoia. The film is fundamentally about his journey to self-acceptance.

Grace: ‘The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads – they all adore Ferris.’ As evidenced in films from The Breakfast Club (1985) to Mean Girls (2004), teenagers run in packs. A distinct social hierarchy exists in any school, and inclusion in a particular group can define one’s identity through the entirety of adolescence.

Grace: ‘The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads – they all adore Ferris.’ As evidenced in films from The Breakfast Club (1985) to Mean Girls (2004), teenagers run in packs. A distinct social hierarchy exists in any school, and inclusion in a particular group can define one’s identity through the entirety of adolescence.

The cross-generational divide is a key characteristic of adolescence. While Hughes paints the adults of his piece as particularly naive, the relationship between Ferris and determined headmaster Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) comes to embody the (often well-placed) suspicion and lack of mutual respect which can exist between young and old…

The cross-generational divide is a key characteristic of adolescence. While Hughes paints the adults of his piece as particularly naive, the relationship between Ferris and determined headmaster Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) comes to embody the (often well-placed) suspicion and lack of mutual respect which can exist between young and old…

…although adults can be as ageist as teens. <span>Maitre d’: ‘I weep for the future.’</span>

…although adults can be as ageist as teens. Maitre d’: ‘I weep for the future.’

If teens can be horrible human beings, parents can be even worse. While his father is never seen on screen, Cameron’s relationship with his dad is the dramatic heart of the narrative. Described as a cold and distant man, who loves his cars more than his family, his behaviour is the cause of Cameron’s palpable and perpetual paranoia.

If teens can be horrible human beings, parents can be even worse. While his father is never seen on screen, Cameron’s relationship with his dad is the dramatic heart of the narrative. Described as a cold and distant man, who loves his cars more than his family, his behaviour is the cause of Cameron’s palpable and perpetual paranoia.

The push-pull nature of pubescent hormones, the looming responsibility of adulthood and the carefree nature of late teenhood means that the highs can be really high…

The push-pull nature of pubescent hormones, the looming responsibility of adulthood and the carefree nature of late teenhood means that the highs can be really high…

…and the lows can be utterly overwhelming.

…and the lows can be utterly overwhelming.

Ferris: ‘If things don’t change for Cameron, he’s going to marry the first girl he lays and she’s gonna treat him like shit.’ Adolescent boys think they know everything about love and relationships. They do not.

Ferris: ‘If things don’t change for Cameron, he’s going to marry the first girl he lays and she’s gonna treat him like shit.’ Adolescent boys think they know everything about love and relationships. They do not.

Irrational behaviour and uncontrollable mood swings mean that things can go from bad to much, much worse in a heartbeat.

Irrational behaviour and uncontrollable mood swings mean that things can go from bad to much, much worse in a heartbeat.

Ferris: ‘We’ll wait for your father to come home and we’ll tell him I did this. He hates me anyway.’ Even if he’s an arrogant narcissist, your best friend can also be a life-saver. Despite having a selfish streak a mile wide, Ferris leaps into action when he believes Cameron to be suicidal, and immediately offers to take the wrap for the ruined car.

Ferris: ‘We’ll wait for your father to come home and we’ll tell him I did this. He hates me anyway.’ Even if he’s an arrogant narcissist, your best friend can also be a life-saver. Despite having a selfish streak a mile wide, Ferris leaps into action when he believes Cameron to be suicidal, and immediately offers to take the wrap for the ruined car.

Thanks to adolescent propensity for drama, a lie can get out of hand pretty quickly.

Thanks to adolescent propensity for drama, a lie can get out of hand pretty quickly.

Teens can make instant connections that are both fleeting and enlightening. Jeanie’s passionate encounter with a young man  in the police station – played, in prophetic cameo, by Charlie Sheen – lifts her bitter mood and makes her take a look at her motives for hating Ferris…

Teens can make instant connections that are both fleeting and enlightening. Jeanie’s passionate encounter with a young man in the police station – played, in prophetic cameo, by Charlie Sheen – lifts her bitter mood and makes her take a look at her motives for hating Ferris…

…proving that loyalty bests rivalry and family can be relied on to save the day, as Jeanie does by covering for Ferris when Rooney finally catches him red-handed.

…proving that loyalty bests rivalry and family can be relied on to save the day, as Jeanie does by covering for Ferris when Rooney finally catches him red-handed.

Cameron: ‘I am not going to sit on my ass as the events that affect me unfold to determine the course of my life. I’m going to take a stand.’ Although much of teenage interaction is through the medium of quips, banter and often reckless behaviour, true friendship can have a profound effect on a troubled soul.

Cameron: ‘I am not going to sit on my ass as the events that affect me unfold to determine the course of my life. I’m going to take a stand.’ Although much of teenage interaction is through the medium of quips, banter and often reckless behaviour, true friendship can have a profound effect on a troubled soul.

And ultimately, despite appearances, the underdog may actually turn out to be the bravest soul of all.

And ultimately, despite appearances, the underdog may actually turn out to be the bravest soul of all.

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