I don’t know, what do you want to watch?
Why is it when you add back even one – let alone two! – adult children, the ability to agree on what to watch on TV is reduced to microscopic proportions? (Separately, shouldn’t anyone holding another screen device in their hand while negotiating automatically lose their vote? Yes, the answer is yes.)
The other night we settled on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which – spoiler alert – is one of my favorite movies. John Hughes was a genius and minor hero, an advertising guy and uber-prolific screenwriter and director who almost singlehandedly created the modern (as in post-Elvis) teen movie genre. This status is so universal that the raucous spoof, Not Another Teen Movie, which lampoons literally every 1980’s angsty trope, is set in fictional John Hughes High School.
My kids grew up with Ferris, and they like it. They get it. I, of course, cherish it and so does my wife. I would say with confidence that I know every line and can recite most of them. I am unswayed by current popular opinion, which I was made aware of on a business trip to San Francisco last year. I was in an Uber, listening to NPR, and there was a story about a guy who, like me, was a lifelong Ferris fan and had made an event of sharing his favorite movie with his two teenage daughters, assuming they would find it as charming and timeless as he did.
Paraphrasing the radio interview, along with this article, A Psychologist’s Perspective on Ferris Bueller (30 Years Later), kids today tend to think Ferris Bueller is a douche, particularly in the way he treats his best friend, Cameron.
I don’t think anyone reading this blog would be unfamiliar with the movie/plot, but just in case: In an era before cell phones, Zoom meetings and social media, there is only the “real world,” and charismatic high school senior Ferris Bueller wants to be in it. He guilts his best friend and hypochondriac-in-chief, Cameron Frye, into leaving his sick bed to pick up Ferris and his girlfriend for a whirlwind adventure. Along the way we learn that Cameron is shy, beaten down by life and his materialistic, domineering father. They commandeer the dad’s prized, hand-detailed Ferrari and proceed to evade detection by Ferris’s omnipresent advertising exec father and, hilariously, the high school principal bent on revenge against the free spirit. “What is so dangerous about him is that he gives good kids bad ideas,” principal Ed Rooney tells his secretary, Grace.
Unsupervised, the car is driven more than 100 miles, prompting Cameron to have a catatonic episode. Then, when “rolling back” the odometer doesn’t work, the car is accidentally destroyed as Cameron loses his sh*t over having a father who loves things more than his family.
OK, when you write it out longhand like that it does sound kind of like an After School Special and not the light, liberating romp it is. Hmm. Interesting.
But I’m not ready to concede the point. Back in 1986 there were just as many dysfunctional families as there are now, proportionately speaking. The concept of a wise-ass risk-taker and his sad-sack friend being joined at the hip (Ferris has the balls, but Cameron has the wheels) is accessible and timeless. Back in the day, we all wanted to BE Ferris Bueller, and the girls wanted to date him. And yet the movie is largely Cameron’s character arc: pushed out of his comfort zone, he learns to confront his situation and “take a stand.”
To the extent one pays any attention to Cameron at all, I think the message is upbeat and inspiring. He had a good day, saw Sloane naked (or in her underwear, it’s not clear which), and learned that Ferris does, deep down, care for him and want to protect him. That knowledge, and his ultimate survival after being caught up in Ferris’s manic wake, gives him the strength to stand on his own. How can kids today watch this and find fault? Why is it so important to treat Cameron like he’s fragile, disabled, entitled?
(Short sidebar: There is a well-known theory that the Ferris Bueller story takes place completely in Cameron’s repressed and neurotic brain, and that Ferris is his alter ego, a la Tyler Durden in Fight Club. Clearly, the millennial tendency to react with indignant scorn at how this fragile, tortured soul is abused in virtually every facet of his life supports and/or feeds off this theory. Clearly someone as damaged as Cameron would have long ago learned to dissociate and create characters and situations to protect himself against a cold, cynical world. I’m going to throw up in my mouth a little now, and then we can continue.)
Let’s talk about what kind of a world we want to live in. In my world, I want kids to watch out for each other, but in a way that helps them grow, not fester. I want them to learn what they can do, not be protected from failing – especially when that means not trying. Ferris is a fictional character – they all are – but rooting for him is not the same as agreeing with everything he does. Think about it: He literally runs through someone’s house on his mad dash home to beat his parents! Not cool, Ferris!
But he’s a character, a caricature. He’s someone everyone can like because he’s just out for a good time without wishing anyone else ill. He doesn’t mesh with his sister, but manages to wink at her instead of bitching at her. And she ultimately gets it, and joins Team Ferris.
Does Ferris bully Cameron out of bed to help Cameron, or to get a ride? I believe it’s to get a ride; because that’s funny. But that doesn’t mean it harms Cameron. Just being in Ferris’s orbit helps everyone, brings everyone together. Remember the water tower? The newspaper story? The police sergeant telling Mrs. Bueller, “Tell him all the guys at the station are pulling for him.”
The people who get caught up in Ferris’s vibe ultimately win, they do better: Cameron grows. His parents are still in love after blah-blah years. His sister takes that big stick out of her ass. Students embrace social responsibility. The local economy booms as flowers and gift baskets are purchased. Ferris is a catalyst for positive change, sans any of the tools we have today.
By comparison, the few adults who oppose him (arguably, only the principal and – if you squint – the “snooty” maître d) are left worse off. Ferris is the hero, Cameron the beneficiary - as are we all.
Why are millennials and Gen Z kids, possibly the most self-absorbed humans ever birthed, turned off by Ferris and hypersensitive to Cameron’s dire straits? Is it because they relate to his pain and isolation? Is it because so many of them live in sterile, materialistic environments where their parents are absent and their caretakers are the media and a tiny circle of “real” friends? Does Cameron’s predicament hit a little too close to home?
Good! Then widen your perspective and recognize the truth: If you find yourself aligning with Cameron you should resist the urge to shelter in place and, instead, find your Ferris. Because, to quote none other than Winnie the Pooh, "You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, smarter than you think and loved more than you'll ever know." THAT is the message to embrace.
Remember, the key to being Ferris is that, “The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, waistoids, dweebies, dickheads - they all adore him. They think he's a righteous dude.” Be Ferris. If you can’t be Ferris, find one, expand your circle. Better yet, be Ferris for your friends and then let someone else be Ferris for you when you’re having a Cameron day. Remember, after fighting with the voices inside his head, Cameron took that leap of faith and drove over to Ferris’s house. He made that choice.
And that, as they say, made all the difference.