For years, I’ve lived with a secret. It’s a dark chapter of my life, a momentary lapse in judgment that I only now confess because the statute of limitations has expired.
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I skipped school.
To my parents, my teachers, my principal: I beg your forgiveness for this crime which occurred on the afternoon of March 12, 1980. My friend and I went off the school grounds for lunch and we…well, we just never returned for fifth period. On a whim, we aimlessly wandered the neighborhoods of my small hometown in Wyoming, doing nothing but enjoying the thrill of not sitting in study hall and American History 101. Then, at 4 p.m., I walked casually back in the front door of my house, falsely wearing that hangdog expression which can only come from an afternoon of heavy book-learning. Mom, Dad….for the last two decades, I’ve borne the shame of truancy and I just hope you can find it in your hearts to wipe the slate clean.
There. Now I feel better.
And what brought on this breast-baring mea culpa? Last night, I watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for the first time. If I thought my afternoon school-skip was bad….well! I humbly bow to Mr. Bueller.
Ferris (Matthew Broderick) is the slick-tongued, cherub-faced son who convinces his parents he’s sick enough ("feel my clammy hands") to stay home from school—much to the chagrin of his older sister (Jennifer Grey) who sees right through his lies—all the way down to the fake cough. Once Mom and Dad have gone off to work, Ferris springs out of bed and persuades his best friend, Cameron (Alan Ruck), and his girlfriend, Sloane (Mia Sara), to join him on his quest for the zest of life.
Ferris’ motto is summed up in two of the movie’s many classic lines: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." and "You can never go too far."
Ferris goes just far enough to tweak the school’s prissy principal, Edward R. Rooney (excellently played by the always-excellent Jeffrey Jones). Rooney knows a cheat and a slacker when he smells one. As he says, "I did not achieve this position in life by having some snot-nosed punk leave my cheese out in the wind."
Most of the movie follows Ferris and friends as they aimlessly wander Chicago neighborhoods, always one step ahead of school officials, parents and Ferris’ jealous sister. Not much happens—but then, that’s the point. The best "days off" are those without an agenda.
I’m not sure why I never saw Ferris Bueller when it was first released in 1986—perhaps I was too old (23 at the time) for its target audience; more likely, I was still wracked with guilt over my own "day off." But now that I’ve seen it, I know why it’s become such a popular cult hit. It’s a textbook example of How to Be a Teenager and Get Away With It.
Until he started a downhill slide with the grossly overrated Home Alone, writer-director John Hughes had racked up an impressive string of movies that got all the details of teen angst just right. The Breakfast Club, She’s Having a Baby and (my personal favorite) Some Kind of Wonderful were all pitch-perfect anthems to surviving that torturous period between the ages of 12 and 18. No one, it seems, understood the Acne Years better than Mr. Hughes.
In Ferris Bueller, he’s at the top of his form and, while most people might think this is a cute movie about a kid who skips school, I think Hughes reaches for something even deeper than that. It’s a movie about shallow-minded parents and the despair of their children who see themselves sliding toward that same materialism. Take, for example, Cameron’s ongoing agony because his father’s prized 1961 Ferrari has been stolen for a day-long joyride by Ferris. Ruck, who was 26 years old at the time (!), gives a heartbreakingly funny performance as he frets over his unseen dad finding out about the stolen Ferrari. By the end of the film, however, he’s shouting with full-lunged Hughesian teen rebellion: "I will take a stand! I will take a stand!" It’s enough to make underappreciated teens everywhere leap to their feet, yelling, "Right on!"
Ferris, with his sly grin and 100-mile-per-hour mind, has reached that point long before Cameron. He knows his parents and his principal are simple-minded buffoons and he intends to take full advantage of their ignorance. The 24-year-old (!) Broderick gives the character full gusto; it’s one of his most supremely confident screen performances and will likely be used as a model for independent-spirited teens for years to come.
Should parents be afraid of Ferris Bueller? Sure. But then, if they look in the dusty corners of their memories, they’ll probably find their own moments of Bueller-itis. Like when they daringly skipped study hall and American History 101.
By the way, I watched Ferris Bueller with my teenage son. I made a full confession afterwards.
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