A Fruitful Life

All Play and No Work in Ferris Bueller’s Geography of Nowhere

Art depicting the main characters from FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF
illustration by Rachel Merrill

When I moved to Chicago in June of this year, I had trouble unpacking my boxes. I had never been to the Windy City, and there was too much to do: jetting around on the L; diving amid the sailboats on the cerulean waves of the Lake; polishing off a ketchup-less dog. A friend had warned me, somewhat enigmatically, that summer in Chicago was “a sight to behold.” As I took in the beauty of Lincoln Park and the Magnificent Mile and the improbably (possibly artificially) sun-kissed bodies of my new Midwestern neighbors—running, biking, lounging, and picnicking with the avidity of a people who knew how to appreciate seasons—I thought I understood what he meant. The days were long and luminous. I let ice cream melt down my wrist, felt a stab of exhilaration when I realized it was two in the afternoon on a Tuesday. I had the sense that I had arrived at the end of history. 

Or maybe that was the feeling of discovering a place in the languorous interregnum between school and a new job. Either way, when it came time for “onboarding,” the mind-numbing corporate orientation that presaged my labor, I couldn’t help but look out the window and wonder, “How could I possibly be expected to handle work on a day like this?

Though Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) was already several decades old by the time I was in high school, John Hughes’s classic teen comedy served as a cultural touchstone during my youth—and an endless font of quotes. Taking attendance, teachers bellowed surnames in self-aware monotone: “Bueller? Bueller?” There were “Save Ferris” t-shirts and too many Red Wings jerseys for a public school in southwest Florida. Most of all, we referenced Ferris’s mantra, a kind of 1980’s YOLO that had wormed its way well into the American collective conscience and given voice to a certain kind of adolescent abandon: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Ferris Bueller’s carpe diem attitude is probably the most memorable aspect of the entire film (after the red Ferrari of odometer infamy). Determined to enjoy a gorgeous day in the waning weeks of senior year, Ferris (Matthew Broderick)—a slacker par excellence with a penchant for breaking the fourth wall—feigns grave illness in order to spend the day with his best friend, hypochondriacal pushover Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck), and girlfriend, the dark-eyed and laconic Sloane Peterson (Mia Sara). While the trio soak up a carefree day, Ferris is hunted by his jealous younger sister, Jeannie (Jennifer Grey) and the vengeful, if perpetually stumbling, Dean of Students, Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones). 

In the end, the kids get away with everything (mostly) scot-free. Cameron destroys his father’s beloved sportscar, but paradoxically no longer fears his paternal ire. Ferris makes it home just in time to convince his parents that he’s been in bed all day. Rooney gets mauled by a rottweiler, kicked in the face, and shuttled home on a bus full of high schoolers.

It was only a few weeks later, after the agony of onboarding had subsided into the banality of routine, that I realized that all of this—the central action of one of my favorite childhood movies—took place in Chicago, my new home. 

Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron make a highlight reel of the Second City as they cruise handsfree down Lake Shore Drive, snatch foul balls at Wrigley, scrutinize paintings at the Art Institute, watch the finance men at the Board of Trade, and stare down puny pedestrians from the top of the Willis (then Sears) Tower. There are websites that offer Ferris Bueller inspired tours of Chi-Town, starting with the exact garage in which the kids ditch the Ferrari before two parking attendants take it on a joy ride, and culminating at the intersection where Ferris sings and dances atop a float in the Von Steuben Day parade.

Though many of John Hughes’s films—The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Home Alone—are set in and around Chicago, the director gave the city special treatment in Ferris Bueller, to do, in some sense, what Annie Hall had done for Manhattan. 

Hughes said as much in interviews: “Chicago is what I am…Ferris is sort of my love letter to the city. And the more people who get upset with the fact that I film there, the more I’ll make sure that’s exactly where I film. It’s funny–nobody ever says anything to Woody Allen about always filming in New York.”

In that light, Hughes’s tale of three truant teens reveals itself to be one part 1980’s family-friendly comedy and two parts comeback to the innumerable movies shot in, and dedicated to, New York and Los Angeles. Hughes succeeds in this, if only because Bueller’s Chicago has a lighthearted authenticity, down to the silliest details. 

At one point, Ferris tries to get a table at a posh restaurant by impersonating Abe Froman, the “sausage king of Chicago.” The gag lands, partially because Ferris, in his white t-shirt and leopard print vest, looks stunningly out of place at the ritzy Chez Quis—but also because Chicago is, presumably, the only American city that would have a sausage king with its history of meatpacking and Gilded Age titans. At the hospital in which I work, I was told that doctors wear gray coats because, over a century ago, Chicago physicians needed to distinguish themselves from their ubiquitous white-coated counterparts—butchers. The lore is almost certainly apocryphal, but like Ferris’s antics, it feels like it could be real.

As much as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is about Chicago, the city, it is also about Chicago’s suburbs, the sprawling metropolitan statistical area of 10 million people that includes northeastern Illinois, southeastern Wisconsin, and northwestern Indiana—a region some call “Chicagoland.” When I met people in college who were “from” Chicago, it was often these satellite towns: Evanston, Winnetka, Aurora, Naperville. And even though Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron spend their day off in the big city, it is in Chicagoland, the suburbs, where they go to school, where their parents work, where they actually live

Cameron (and the red Ferrari) live in the famous Ben Rose House in the suburb of Highland Park. The kids’ high school is Glenbrook North, and they stop on their way back home at Glencoe Beach. Many of the scenes of Ferris’ house and his mother’s office were shot in the suburb of Winnetka. 

With the same detailed lens he applied to the city, Hughes captured the staid beauty of the Chicago suburbs: manicured lawns, circular driveways, picket fences, doggy doors, water towers. Although Hughes triumphs at placing Ferris in Chicago, his rendering of the visual tapestry of suburbia takes the audience away from the country’s third largest city. In the film’s final scene, as Ferris races his sister home, jumping over hedges, BBQ grilles, trampolines, and jungle gyms, searching frantically for the key under the doormat, it’s easy to forget that this movie is set in Chicago. It looks like anywhere in the USA. (Actually, the real Bueller house is in Long Beach, California.)

James Kunstler called this hollow and repeating landscape of subdivisions and automobiles that came to dominate America after WWII the “Geography of Nowhere.” “The jive-plastic commuter tract home wastelands, the Potemkin village shopping plazas with their vast parking lagoons…the freeway loops around every big and little city with their clusters of discount merchandise marts…” It’s easy to find evidence of Kunstler’s dystopian vision in the disquieting familiarity of Ferris’s geography: bedroom towns of dozens of thousands, rows of homes built for generations of commuters, the miles and miles of highway, the faux-Tudor plaza in which his mom works. This is supposed to be an iconic Chicago movie, but it looks a lot like where I grew up. 

Of course, Hughes made his name depicting this suburban adolescence, the imagery and the attitudes. We see Ferris’s school, the lockers, droning lectures, and arduous gym class, as universal reminders of a certain kind of middle class teendom. There are the familiar, if reductive, stereotypes—“the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wasteoids, dweebies, dickheads”—who invariably believe that Ferris is a righteous dude. And naturally, there is the centrality of the automobile. For ‘burbs kids, then and since, having a car is the ultimate symbol of freedom, which is why Ferris so aggressively bums rides from Cameron. But there are layers of identification in the film’s automotive antics. The audience laughs with recognition as Jeannie runs through stop lights, and geriatric drivers who can’t see above the steering wheel swerve recklessly from gutter to gutter. Parking, the baneful counterpoint to petrol-powered fun, is a recurring motif: Rooney gets his car booted and towed after ditching it in front of a fire hydrant. The red Ferrari’s woes begin, of all places, in a parking garage. 

More than half of Americans identify as suburbanites, so it makes sense that we would find Ferris’s use of his day natural. The city is where suburbanites fled from, for better schools and more room, and it’s where Ferris and friends go when they get a chance. When their day of wanton fun is over, free from responsibilities and repercussions, they return home, to the quiet seclusion of two-car garages and gated backyards.

Some critics have chastised Bueller for its depiction of privilege and its lack of engagement with politics. One called the film a “splendidly ridiculous exercise in unadulterated indulgence.” That seems a bit harsh, especially considering that ridiculous indulgence—whimsy and improbability, vicarious escape—is often why we go to the movies. 

Even so, these reviewers seem to miss the point—the irony in Ferris’s lines, the wink and jab at the dicta of upper middle class life. Everyone knows a terrifying father who loves his car more than his kids, or a suit-wearing dad who proclaims truisms like “if you wanna sell, you gotta spend.” When Ferris’s dad suggests that he “take a hot bath and then wrap a hot towel around your head,” Ferris repeats the advice, baring the obvious silliness. “Wrap a hot towel around my head? Okay…Love you too.”

Sure, Ferris gets away with everything, which belies a certain kind of (cinematic) white male privilege. But at the same time, his antics serve to undermine the self-assuredness and superficiality of the suburban adults—the realtors, vague business types, and authoritarian principals who populate middle America. Convinced that Ferris is the hot shot sausage king Abe Froman, the snooty maitre d’ of Chez Quis apologizes. “I appreciate your understanding,” says the squirrely, now obsequious gatekeeper of the tony restaurant. “Don’t think twice,” Ferris responds. “It’s understanding that makes it possible for people like us to tolerate a person like yourself.” Ferris parodies the condescension and vitriol of polite society that are so often cloaked in manners—the “I’d like to speak to the manager” of indignant Karens. 

But Ferris isn’t committed to any one side. At one point, he tells the camera that he doesn’t care to learn about European Socialism, the subject of that day’s history exam, nor does he believe in any “ism.” It appears equally unlikely that Ferris believes in capitalism, even if his comfortable life is the product of generational wealth accumulation. The movie poster’s proclamation that “leisure rules” seems an open taunt to the Reagan-era belief in free market growth, as well as the modern tyranny of 21st century productivity culture, in which even leisure time is commodified and purposeful. We do yoga so we can be more disciplined, take vacations to be refreshed workers. Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron are not in the least productive and enjoy slacking off for its own sake; in a world before portable cameras and geo-filters, they can’t even brag when the day is done.

Yet that doesn’t spare them from the ramping pressures of adolescence, the growing perception of childhood as a means to an end. Early in the film, Ferris fakes adamance to his overindulgent parents, insisting that he can’t miss school no matter how sick he might appear. He states, without apparent humor, “I want to go to a good college, so I can have a fruitful life.”

College, the terminal concern of the suburban petit bourgeois, is a topic skewered throughout the film. Rooney threatens to hold Ferris back a year, and Ferris wonders how he and Sloane will stay together after he goes to college. At one point Cameron confides to Sloane that he doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. She asks about college and what he’s interested in. “Nothing,” Cameron answers, before they both start laughing. “Me neither,” Sloane replies. Struggling to fake confidence in their future, Sloane and Cameron chuckle at the obvious ridiculousness of expecting teenagers to chart the course of their entire life with a major, and hence vocation, that is as remunerative as it is interesting. Over the years, American suburban youth have been subjected to this pressure in increasing doses, compelled into draconian sports leagues or encouraged to learn Mandarin to be desirable in the global economy. There is less space in childhood to pursue profitless hobbies, to meander aimlessly through the woods, to do absolutely nothing. Or at least that’s how it felt to me.

When Ferris receives a computer instead of a car for his birthday, I’m reminded of the not-so-subtle suggestions that I “get into” coding as a kid, the dinner table conversations about employability and job security. John Dewey once said that education is not preparation for life, but life itself. Growing up in an affluent suburb not unlike Ferris’s, buoyed by an unjustified fear that one day I could lose it all, it was obvious to me how false this statement was. Education clearly was preparation, a means to an end, a launching pad to that lustrous college, the cushy job—a stepping stone to a fruitful life.  Naturally, Ferris uses his introduction to STEM to hack the school server and reduce Rooney’s count of his absences from nine to two. Later, he uses his newfound technological prowess to jerry-rig a machine that mimics his snores and offers pre-recorded responses to people who ring the doorbell. Clearly, Ferris isn’t lazy. He just doesn’t want to spend his energy on things that parents, and society, want. In that sense, he resembles the generations who will follow him, the “quiet quitters,” the young workers of what some have called “the great resignation.” It took many of us a housing crisis and an economic recession and a pandemic and impending climate collapse to realize what Ferris knew all along: life’s too short to be wasted on work.

Still, Ferris isn’t exactly the film’s protagonist. Despite his symbolic rejection of adult responsibility and his enviable savoir faire, he can’t easily be classified a hero. Ferris is selfish, pushy, and lies to pretty much everyone, including his best friend. He bullies Cameron into taking his dad’s car and then teases him endlessly for being nervous about the deception. Ferris is the one who talks about enjoying life, but that comes easily to him, and at the movie’s outset, he already seems to be enjoying life just fine. On the other hand, Cameron—the suspendered, long-faced worrywart who lives in a house that is more museum than home (“It’s very beautiful and it’s very cold and you’re not allowed to touch anything”)—is the only character to evince real growth. He goes from merely anxious to outright catatonic (when he realizes the Ferrari’s odometer has recorded a few hundred miles in one day) to defiantly resolute at the film’s end. “I’m bullshit. I put up with everything. My old man pushes me around. I never say anything!” Cameron shouts in an emotional soliloquy. “Well he’s not the problem, I’m the problem. I gotta take a stand!” 

While there’s something obviously Oedipal about Cameron’s arc, which ends with him sending the Ferrari tumbling into the woods, there’s also a sense in which his outburst is more profound, a rejection of the privileged society that birthed him and the boring conventions to which it obeys. Cameron seems like the kind of guy bound for Dartmouth, or maybe Amherst, headed, as Ferris predicts, to marry the first woman who shows him any affection. We can imagine Cameron returning to Chicagoland and getting a job at his father’s firm, settling into a gelid marriage and custom-built house of his own. As Cameron sends the Ferrari flying, we glimpse an alternate universe, the one in which we all stand up to our bosses, our partners, the rigid bullies who hold us in place. Later, Ferris hints that he might have orchestrated the entire day for just this to happen, for Cameron to bubble over and “take a stand.” While Ferris is clever, it’s difficult to believe he’s capable of engineering an entire day to benefit Cameron’s maturation. Instead, we have to believe that Ferris sees something genuinely admirable in Cameron’s courage and resolve, and that he’s trying to take credit after the fact.

Not that Ferris won’t miss his best friend next year. In a revealing aside, Ferris confides to the audience that he’s feeling anxious about his future without Cameron, about the fleeting intimacy of high school friendships. “We’re gonna graduate in a couple of months. And then we’ll have the summer. He’ll work and I’ll work. We’ll see each other at night and on the weekends. Then he’ll go to one school and I’ll go to another. Basically that will be it.”

Anyone who has lost a close friend, or moved on from a distinct period in their life, can relate to Ferris here. We cherish certain times for their transience, for the nagging knowledge that they can never be permanent. One day, I left high school and my family and my childhood home; I’ve never been able to go back. There’s a genuine sadness hiding in the escapades and exuberance of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It’s the awareness that this, like everything else, will all come to an end: the romps with friends, the parents who tuck you into bed, the gorgeous, crystal blue-skyed days. 

Early in the film, Ferris calls in to his high school to rile up sympathy with the underclassmen. After he tells a girl he may need a kidney transplant, she asks him, “Think you’ll be alive this weekend?” “Yeah,” Ferris answers. “I’d say I will.” She responds, with too much pep, “Great. Maybe I’ll see ya. Bye!” We all hope that we’ll be around for the weekend—to continue the antics, the friendships, the laughs. But one day, maybe soon, we won’t be.

Hughes’s greatest gift was fitting this plangent note amid the endless gags. 

Blink, and you might miss it.