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"The secret is that the film, despite its name, is not really about Ferris at all. It’s not really about a day off, either. It’s about fear. Cameron lives in fear of life. Ferris lives in fear of nothing."
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is one of the great films and, almost certainly, John Hughes’ best. The more I watch it, the more my love for it grows. The secret is that the film, despite its name, is not really about Ferris at all. It’s not really about a day off, either. It’s about fear. Cameron lives in fear of life. Ferris lives in fear of nothing.
The film belongs to Cameron. He provides the emotional stakes and therefore the heart of the film. Ferris Bueller, and his day off, are merely a vehicle for Cameron’s journey into the dark heart of fear. Without Cameron, there is nothing. Without Cameron, there is Deadpool—a film that pays homage to Ferris Bueller in its closing credits and which, in the entirety of its run time, proved that it never failed to learn the wrong lessons from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
John Hughes has made some not so great films. But his genius was always to make films that cared more about more of their characters than most films of this type ever bother to do. Here, Cameron is the heart and Ferris is the star, but the film doesn't only care about them. For example, there is Ferris’ sister, Jeannie (Jennifer Grey). She gets her own mini-arc. She begins by believing that she hates her brother and ends by maybe still hating her brother but also appreciating that what really she hates is how her own fear prevents her from living the kind of life that she wants to live.
And then, there is, as well, Sloane (Mia Sara), Ferris’ girlfriend. The role as written doesn’t really have any more of an arc than Ferris—as such they are twinned for the story’s purposes. But if you watch closely I think you can see how she struggles with fear, as well. A fear of being left behind. The fear of loving someone like Ferris—someone very much like The Doctor of Doctor Who—who no matter what he claims about marriage could so easily leave you behind. Loving Ferris, like loving The Doctor, is to love a force of nature. It is a risky business. Just look at how Hughes leaves the two of them at the end of the film. There goes Ferris running off home, and Sloane calls out to his retreating form—“I love you!” and Ferris calls back “I love you, too!” but, like The Doctor, he never stops running. He never looks back.
Ferris exists slightly outside the reality of everyone else. This is why the decision to have him talk to the camera works so well. Having conquered his fears he has a perspective on himself and his reality that the others don’t. It's not simply a gimmick, it's a revelation of character.
Late in the film, after Cameron has rescued himself from his fear, Sloane says to Ferris, “You knew what you were doing when you woke up this morning, didn’t you?” Ferris smiles. Of course he knew. And, of course, Sloane knows. She knows him better than anyone. She knows his secret. And, because of her, now we know it, too.