Ferris Bueller’s Day Off! It’s iconic, a true 80’s classic. So many memorable scenes; Ferris’ monologues, the “Twist and Shout” parade, the phone call with Mr. Rooney, and the droning attendance call of “Bueller?” Matthew Broderick presented to us a character that would live on in popular culture as the archetypal cool-guy high-schooler. That’s all well and good, but the most interesting scenes in the movie aren’t the ones that focus on Ferris. They’re the ones that focus Cameron Frye, Ferris’ best friend.
Cameron’s role in the film starts when he’s lying in bed, clearly sick. Ferris calls him, telling him he needs to use Cameron’s car, saying that Cameron being sick is just “in his head.” I think that it’s important to note the dichotomy here: Ferris spends the whole day pretending to be sick, whereas Cameron is actually sick and gets better, or perhaps pretends to be healthy. (I prefer the interpretation that he’s actually sick, and that time with his friend helps him get better.)
There’s the hilarious scene at the art museum, in which Cam looks deep into the eyes of a painting which depicts a mother and her child having a lovely stroll in the park. There’s a look of tremendous sadness in his eyes. It doesn’t take a literary scholar to interpret this as a manifestation of Cameron’s desire for a closer relationship with his parents.
I think that the strength of Cameron’s storyline comes to the forefront in the scene in which he falls into the pool and for a split second it looks as though he’s going to drown. Cameron seems to fake a suicide attempt, and when Ferris pulls him out, he plays it off as a joke. Later on, Cameron admits that when he just kind of saw himself from the outside, and he regrets “wishing [he] was dead.” There’s certainly no way of knowing, but one might suggest that when Cameron went under the water, he was actually trying to commit suicide, but once he was close to drowning, he realized he wanted to live.
And of course, there’s the climactic scene in which Cameron hits his father’s car, possession which is more loved than he is, until it falls out the window and is utterly destroyed. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off never reaches the emotional tension that John Hughes’ other most prominent movie, The Breakfast Club, does when its characters are all at each others’ throats. But the car wreck scene is certainly the closest it gets. Ferris and Sloane barely know what to say, and Cameron is trying to process everything. It’s then that he decides he’s going to take a stand against his father.
If we look at the plot as a whole, we see that Cameron has changed vastly, having the best day of his life, whereas Ferris’ life hasn’t really changed at all. Mr. Frye’s car has been utterly wrecked, Cameron has gone through an existential crisis, and will probably be punished severely as he tries to make a stand to a father who has probably been emotionally abusive. And this movie tries to convince viewers that Ferris trying to make it home before his parents and Principal Rooney discover he’s been lying is a more interesting plotline than that?! I think not. There’s no character growth for Ferris. He just skips a day of school and gets into some wacky hijinks. Cameron is someone who grows into a more assertive and charismatic person by the end of the movie. In any other story, Ferris would be the side character, just a catalyst for Cameron’s growth.
The movie could end with Cameron speaking with his father, and the two of them coming to an understanding (or Cameron being beaten senseless). Perhaps the writers had decided that we had seen enough character growth in Cameron, and that was the point at which there was no reason to see how his story ended (a la “the journey is more important than the destination”). Instead, we see Ferris run home just in time for the happy ending in which neither Mr. Rooney nor his parents find out what he’s been up to. This might seem like a mistake on the filmmaker’s part, as Cameron might be more interesting, but I think that they have a reason for doing this.
Namely, I think that the film’s misplaced focus reflects what is going on in Ferris’ life: the film is a happy-go-lucky romp full of teenage shenanigans, while Ferris ignores what might be the serious emotional turbulence that would come with him going to college the next year and leaving behind his friend and girlfriend. Just as Ferris chooses not to focus too much on the problems in his life, the film chooses not to focus too much on what Cameron is experiencing.
This isn’t a huge mar on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it still remains one of the most enjoyable and most memorable movies of the 1980’s. If anything, it’s one of the movie’s strengths. The pairing of Ferris’ school-skipping adventure and Cameron’s subtle character growth makes for wonderful viewing.