When it comes to teen comedies, there aren’t many filmmakers who did them better than John Hughes, whose honest and insightful coming-of-age stories became the definitive take on what it meant to approach adulthood in the 1980s. Some of Hughes’ films work better than others. But among the very best of them is by an adult who spoke fluent teenager, about a teenager who speaks fluent adult, an exuberant masterpiece about seizing the day while you still have one to spare: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Chicago, 1986. It’s near the end of the school year and high school senior/serial truant Ferris Bueller decides to skip school one last time, along with his girlfriend Sloane and his anxious friend Cameron. His easily duped parents let Ferris stay home, but Ferris’ sulking and resentful kid sister Jeanie sees right through him, as does the Dean of Students, Ed Rooney. Both Jeanie and Rooney separately want to catch Ferris in the act, but none of this seems to particularly bother Ferris, who effortlessly convinces Cameron to come along and springs Sloane from class. The three hop in Cameron’s dad’s vintage Ferrari convertible and head into Chicago, where they dine in a fine restaurant, see a Cubs game, go to the top of the Sears Tower, and crash the Von Steuben’s Day parade. It’s the best day of their lives, but for Ferris, who is always a step ahead of everyone, it’s just another weekday. After all, as he’s quick to tell us, live moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
This is one of the most entertaining and life-affirming movies that has ever been made or ever will be made. Hughes really tapped into something special as he crafted a twin love letter—one to the city of Chicago, and one to youthful impulse. Sure, Ferris is a level 20 chaotic neutral rogue who invested in charisma instead of dexterity, and eventually he’ll either land himself in the Oval Office, a corner office or a prison cell. But his superpower is that everybody kind of wishes for a Ferris in their circle who periodically sweeps you up in an adventure you never had the guts to initiate yourself.
Nobody proves that more than Ferris’ best friend Cameron, a guy so anxiety-ridden that if Ferris didn’t force him to misbehave a little, the poor guy would drop dead of a heart attack at the age of 18. Ferris’ girlfriend Sloane knows that one day Ferris will probably get caught, but can’t help but be charmed by his shenanigans anyway. Even the world at large loves the guy, with SAVE FERRIS signs popping up everywhere in response to a groundless rumor that Ferris might be dying. Anybody trying to stop Ferris only does it because deep down, they resent not being along for the ride. They know better than anyone that a little rebellion is a good thing, that growing up too fast is a bad thing, and that the stolen moments along the way are the ones really worth living for. No wonder they hate themselves for not acting on that knowledge while they have the chance.
There are so many things to love about this movie. The way Ferris breaks the fourth wall. The droning roll call at school. Close encounters with Ferris’ dad in the city. Jeanie’s visit to the police station. The Ferrari’s odometer. Rooney’s multiple thrashings. Somebody saves Ferris, after all. So many great moments, each in their perfect place, each timed just right. And all of it carried forth by a sublime new wave/pop soundtrack that ranges from Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Big Audio Dynamite and General Public to a marching band cover of the Beatles, the “I Dream of Jeannie” theme and Wayne Newton.
The beautiful thing about the soundtrack isn’t how well it all works together, but how each song so perfectly captures a moment in the story, and in so doing, reveals a greater larger truism. The Flowerpot Men’s “Beat City” becomes the anthem for getting the hell out of your obligations for the day. English Beat’s “March of the Swivelheads” becomes a manic theme for how fun it can be to race against the impossible. And Yello’s “Oh Yeah” becomes the official and indisputable audio cue for avarice itself.
But none of these songs lands so perfectly as the Dream Academy’s transcendent cover of the Smith’s plaintive “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want,” a song about the exact kind of longing we feel both when we’re adolescent and adult, but for different reasons. The instrumental version that plays in the movie is almost ethereal as we watch Ferris, Sloane and Cameron visit the Art Institute of Chicago in one of their day’s quieter episodes. As they wander the galleries, Ferris and Sloane retire to a backlit corner for a quiet kiss while Cameron stares intensely at “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” by the George Seurat. As the music builds, the camera switches back and forth from Cameron to the painting, capturing the kind of moment we get when faced with a beauty we do not comprehend.
Ferris, Sloane and Cameron all know that this perfect day must end, and with it, a piece of their youth as well. Their entire adventure is a joyously defiant admission of it, which is why we cheer them on so much. We all have that moment when we cross forevermore from childhood to adulthood, when hope and wonder begin their eternal battle against cynicism and numbnes. Some of us are aware enough to know when that moment arrives, and when it does, who could be blamed for wanting to stay in that museum for just a moment longer? But just as we know we can’t stay, we know that the best days of our lives matter so much because we only get so many of them. Better make them count.