I say John Hughes Movie, you think: teenagers, the 1980s, hot pink, awesome cheesy pop music that kicks in at just the right moment, the dull ache of nostalgia for an imagined childhood. Right? Doesn’t matter if you’ve actually seen a John Hughes movie or not – I mean, I’ve seen three – if you’re relatively conversant in pop culture, it has a meaning. For me, they’re magic words – John Hughes comparisons were what convinced me I needed to see Drive. (Sidenote: I really did, but that’s a story for another time).
Ferris Bueller is the reason for that.
(Don’t get me wrong, I love The Breakfast Club, but there’s a reason it didn’t make this list – primarily, that the clichés Hughes created stick out a little more in that film. The Allison de-gothing transformation scene is a bit painful to watch now. And that’s ignoring my instinctual feminist reading of it. But nevertheless, imagine The Breakfast Club holding a position somewhere below the waterline, around #56.)
Like all John Hughes Movies, like all good teen movies, it’s about innocence, and the loss of it. All of the characters are placed on that vital cusp, and it gets touched on more than once. Ferris might want to avoid high school – and get his friends out of it, at least for one day – but the fact that this is his last year, that it’s all coming to an end, is a major source of pathos in the film.
After all, in this world, Ferris is the uncontested king of all he surveys. The whole city, from freshmen to police department, are pulling for him to get through the imaginary illness he’s using to bunk off. Ferris is a walking magnet, both animal – he’s the kind of guy that will stop running for his life to introduce himself to two sunbathing girls in bikinis – and for pure good luck – there’s a moment at the grand all-action finale where he throws a baseball to turn off a radio; it hits the ‘off’ button perfectly and rolls neatly into a waiting glove. Ferris is irresistible by nature, and that pulls everything into place around him. But that can’t last.
There’s little doubt that this is Ferris’ last hurrah, that he’s peaking and rest of his life will roll slowly downhill. This isn’t even subtext, it’s directly text. “I’m going to … put a dent in his future, so years from now, when he looks back on the ruin his life has become…” monologues school principal and nemesis Ed Rooney. Even his best friend Cameron predicts a sparkling career as a “frycook”.
The film isn’t afraid to question whether Ferris’ motives are selfish, or show the mechanics behind the curtain of Ferris’ charm, even – we see him turn it on, how manipulative he is, from the very start with his parents. Not that it makes him any less charismatic, mind.
It’s a legacy that would carry forward into all the post-Hughes teen films. Look at American Pie, or Superbad. Both are films with absolutely filthy minds, but innocence isn’t all about sex, or the lack thereof. In Ferris Bueller, these kids are getting laid, or at least talking about it, and there’s a reasonable amount of salty language, but they’re still figures as innocent as Blake’s young rosy-cheeked boys.
The film’s worldview is simple: teachers and sisters are the villains, girls and friends and cars and simple pleasure are the treasure. All that provides just enough grit to make it feel real; it’s still a entirely good-natured film. Even as it shows us that childlike quality fading into twilight, the world of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off remains untouched by what lies beyond, in the dark.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is an elegy to that period of our lives, and it’s sadfaced about how temporary it all is, how fast it goes by, to paraphase Bueller himself – but it’s still a complete fantasy. This, after all, is a film which repeatedly uses Yello’s Oh Yeah (aka the Duffman theme tune). It’s John Hughes doing what he did best: creating a fantasy world, a vision of the teen years that almost none of us had and, in equal parts, wish we had and romanticise we did. Or is that just me?