Published on June 15th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie5
“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” Ruined My Life
John Hughes’ classic teen fantasy is one hell of a metaphor. This is the story of what happens when a preteen kid takes it literally.
You saw the title. I think Ferris Bueller’s Day Off ruined my life.
When I was a kid, this was always a go-to rewatch. It’s no small mystery why: it’s a movie about a larger-than-life smooth operator who gets to skip school, hang out with his smoking hot girlfriend, and stick it to his shitty principal. It’s every kid’s fantasy, especially kids who haven’t even smelled high school yet. The movie opens on a very direct and informative walk-through of how to successfully fake sick from school—a strategy that I not only learned but perfected in my tenure as a lazy teen. I actually did lick my palms. And it worked.
John Hughes surely knew what he was tapping into when he wrote Ferris. Legend has it, the first draft just came out of him in a weekend. Hughes was quoted in an interview as saying something along the lines of: “Ferris Bueller is more of an idea; a feeling.” That certainly explains why it flowed out of him so quickly—he was writing a film with a protagonist who was a culmination of every bit of charisma Hughes found in the American teenager.
This was, ostensibly, Hughes’ last high school movie (Pretty in Pink came out the same year and Some Kind of Wonderful he wrote but didn’t direct). So it only makes sense that he went all in, blowing up his philosophy not only of teens but life in general, into an allegory of the human condition so charming that it became impossible to write it off as preachy or inane drivel. The thesis at the heart of Ferris is simultaneously inspirational and devastating. It’s that humanity is so beautiful, so charming, so endearing because of our potential to be like Ferris—our potential to say “fuck it,” to make our own luck by always forging ahead with a devilish smirk. The reality is that no one is like Ferris. He is an illusion. A figurehead. He is the prophesied conquering hero. The chosen One. He is the person we always seem to hold ourselves back from becoming. Yet, Hughes saw in teenagers a spirit that, whether through blissful narcissism or pure naivety, came closest to capturing Nirvana, to reaching “True Ferris.”
And then, according to him, everything is downhill after high school. After all, “When you grow up, your heart dies.”
Every single therapist, guidance counselor, teacher, girlfriend that I’ve ever had has told me that I’m a perfectionist. I get anxious and frustrated when things don’t reach this ideal and mostly unachievable standard in my head. I tend to sulk around because of that. In other words, I’m a Cameron. But ever since I was young, I so desperately wanted to be a Ferris. I’ll go one step further: I thought life was as easy as just arbitrarily deciding to be Ferris.
Now, the desire to reach True Ferris is a double-edged sword. One on hand, Hughes created him as a bastion of liberty and freedom, a person somewhere in between a boy and a man who has somehow figured out that the key to being happy is just a blithe lust for life. On the other hand, he was created as a character larger than life, free of the very self-consciousness to which humanity (even the coolest of us) is bootstrapped. I think what he may have underestimated is the power a movie like this would have on a 12-13 year-old boy and his undeveloped brain. I think he underestimated how real it would be to a kid that age.
My life, from the moment I first saw Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to the present moment of writing this, has been an utter disappointment. How could it not be for a kid who thought that he had to literally be Ferris Bueller or else be eternally for want of something impossible? As I grew up, I quickly realized how hard it was to be Ferris Bueller. How difficult it was to just say “fuck it.” I never had the guts to roll the dice with crafty pranks. I never found that endless creative energy to create an abject sound board of illness or illustrate a tasteful nude on Microsoft Paint (looking back, the latter is a big tip early in the film that it’s a total fantasy). And when I did skip school, I never did anything exciting.
On top of that, I unwittingly became Cameron over the course of my adolescence. Okay, maybe not quite as bad. But I’d say my social life in high school could be accurately summed up by the scene in which he has a heated argument with himself in his car.
“I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go. I’ll go. I’ll go.”
I always wanted to be cool and have lots of friends and always be doing something interesting or going out somewhere interesting or be someone people were interested in. In short, I always wanted to be popular. I still do. I think everybody does to some degree. But, for me, it just never came as effortlessly as I thought it was supposed to. And that bothered me, like it was some kind of existential problem, like I was Sisyphus rolling a boulder up and down a hill.
I was and still am this guy who had ingested Ferris into my soul early and then let it sit out and spoil while Cameron slowly but surely took over. I neglected to realize that Ferris was an inspiration not an aspiration. And so every time I felt anxious, every time I felt shy, every time I just wanted to sit around at home and do nothing, I heard Ferris nagging at me, “Cameron, babe. What’s happening?” And I would groan.
But that nagging was only ever enough to make me resent the Cameron in me. It takes more than hearing Ferris’ voice. To be as happy and perfect as Ferris, you have to be Ferris. And I wasn’t Ferris. Still, I heard this voice calling out to me, mostly reminding me of who I was not. And when I did try to be Ferris, I could never escape my over-analysis of “What Would Ferris Do?” I could never just be Noah Dimitrie, because if I did, how could I be Ferris? So every attempt at being Ferris was met with an ugly feeling of self-evaluation. I spent every minute rehearsing how to do my best Ferris impression instead of learning the lesson behind what he represented.
I rewatched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off the other night. It had been a while since I had seen it and I felt in the mood. So I threw it on. And it just hit me. Like, immediately. Within the first whiff of fourth-wall breaking snark. After a period in my life where I had, to some degree, become aware of my perfectionism, aware of how deeper I sank into my Cameron-ness at the hands of my obsession with being Ferris. After a period where I had gathered just enough self-awareness to see it coming. It hit me harder than Jeanie roundhouse kicking Mr. Rooney.
“Ferris Bueller ruined my fucking life.”
I said it out loud. All the angst and frustration and anxiety over this unachievable perfectionism; all the pain and the wheel-spinning and all the Friday nights sat at home smoking weed and watching movies and feeling miserable that I couldn’t muster the energy to even try to do anything more. That whole rut I dug for myself. It began with Ferris Bueller. I remembered the moment it happened as a kid. I remembered seeing Ferris surrounded by an adoring crowd, lip-syncing “Twist and Shout,” fully bathed in that movie magic. I remembered thinking that life could be a movie. And that magic just kind of fell into your lap.
I always kind of knew that the intention behind Ferris was to be symbolic. I always kind of knew that Ferris was too perfect. But rewatching that damn movie made me realize how lost that idea was on pre-teen Noah. It hurts. It hurts to think about it, to write about it. How a piece of pop culture can sink its teeth into you so deep that it infiltrates your blood stream. Like a virus, it spreads until all you can do is wonder when your Sloan is going to come walking around that corner. It hurts because the last year or so, I had been slowly detoxing from that perfectionism that bred misery. I had been making progress. I had been trying to dig into the roots of all this frustration and anxiety. All this Cameron-ness. And then inexplicably, I found it in an old movie.
But just as it hit me, in that moment, that Ferris Bueller ruined my life, something else hit. It was the message that Hughes was trying to get across from the get-go. It was this idea that I could never be Ferris. That Ferris was a figment of my imagination, your imagination, everyone’s imagination. That he was the reason half of human beings who are prescribed anti-depressants don’t consistently take them. He was the reason why people get addicted to drugs or alcohol or porn or whatever. He was the reason why people settle into droll routines and loveless marriages. There is that hypothetically perfect, confident, smooth operator in all of us. The idea that we could be that person, have that life if we try hard enough. And then life wears you down, emotions and anxieties wear you down until you realize you’ll never be Ferris. And that disappointment lingers forever. It makes you want to cheat on your wife or get high all day or shove Taco Bell in your mouth at 2 am.
I believed in Ferris. Most people just have this lingering perception of his presence. But I believed in him like a kid believes in Santa Claus. I believed I could be him. Not just an effortlessly cool person like him. I truly believed I could be him.
It wasn’t until I watched him, swept up in the throws of utter defeat in not becoming him, that I realized how much that belief set me back. But as I kept watching the film, I kept making connections.
As I kept watching, I felt myself shedding that expectation to be him, to take him literally. And I saw a person who wasn’t so much perfect in every way as much as he was simply free of fear. Free of worrying about the person he is going to be. Free of living outside of the present moment. Ferris is the anti-thesis of anxiety. And though no one can truly reach True Ferris, I don’t think that was the idea Hughes had in mind. I think he created Ferris because he wanted to create this self-contained reminder of how effortless and beautiful life can be, as well as how daunting and anxiety-inducing and risky life can be. He wanted to take anxiety and the opposite of anxiety and make them play off each other for laughs. He wanted to remind us that anxiety and present, happy detachment can be best friends. He just wanted to remind us that because a human being could conceive of Ferris, then there must be a happiness, an effortlessness in life that can be achieved. But it isn’t achieved by being Ferris.
It’s achieved by loving yourself and being nothing but that self every day when you wake up. And if you wake up and you want to fake sick from school, then you should do it. If you want to troll pretentious maître ds and pretend to be the sausage king of Chicago, you should do it. If you want to fake a family death to get your girlfriend out of class, you should do it. If you want to hijack a parade and lip-sync Beatles songs, you will probably get arrested. But hey, if you really want to, then why not try?
The point of Ferris Bueller is not to try to be Ferris Bueller. It’s not to be perfect or have a perfect life. It’s to accept that no one can live your life except for you. No one can tell you what to do. So why not say, “Why not?”
After all, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”