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Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a great movie about a terrible human being

Ferris sits in a lawn chair holding a phone wearing swim trunks
The face of unbridled entitlement.
Paramount Pictures
Tanya Pai heads the standards team at Vox, focusing on copy editing, fact-checking, inclusive language and sourcing, and newsroom standards and ethics issues. She’s also a founder of Language, Please, a free resource for journalists and storytellers focused on thoughtful language use.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off premiered 30 years ago, on June 11, 1986. The movie, which director John Hughes wrote in a week, was a critical and commercial hit and became an enduring classic. But now that we’ve had three decades to get used to the idea, let’s admit it: Ferris is the actual worst.

Don’t get me wrong; I love this movie. It’s terrifically fun, both in its own right and from a nostalgia perspective, and I’m all for standing up to the man, defying the system, etc. But the evidence of Ferris’s terribleness just can’t be denied.

Over the course of the movie’s 103-minute running time, he:

  • Lies to his parents.
  • Lies to the administrators and teachers at his school.
  • Stomps all over his “best friend” Cameron’s boundaries.
  • Forces Cameron to steal his father’s car by promising him a fun day out ... only to third-wheel his pal as soon as he can get his girlfriend out of school on dubious pretenses.
  • Commits identity theft. (Poor Abe Froman.)
  • Lies to his peers. Just endless lies, really.
  • Hacks into his school’s computer system.
  • Taunts his sister.
  • Puts his girlfriend in the awkward situation of having to hit on his dad.
  • Demonstrates that he has no idea how car engines — or really the concept of laws of motion — work.
  • Hijacks a city function.
  • Trespasses.

As Cameron says, “As long as I’ve known him, everything works for him” — but what Cameron fails to mention is that Ferris’s luck and success usually come at the expense of those around him.

Ferris is the embodiment of entitlement, lying and manipulating his way through every situation, rubbing his sister’s nose in their parents’ total double standards for their kids, gaslighting any authority figure he can find, and flouting all concern for laws and rules of common human decency.

Ferris is the type of friend who, if you’re feeling a bit depressed, will turn your suffering into an excuse to joyride around town in your father's painfully expensive Ferrari. He's the type of son who’ll exploit your trusting nature as a parent to skip school without consequences, and even get you to participate unwittingly in his deceit.

He’s like Tom Sawyer tricking people into whitewashing the fence — only in this case, the fence is your time, your money, your moral code, and sometimes even your physical safety.

And yet somehow, all of his infuriating qualities occasionally result in something worthwhile. Just watch the infamous parade scene:

Is Ferris trespassing? Probably. Is he breaking some kind of copyright law? Potentially. Does he screw up the carefully planned parade itinerary and the choreography the performers painstakingly rehearsed? Almost definitely.

But he also manages to unite thousands of strangers via the power of (rather badly lip-synced) song, letting them forget the stress of daily life and, for a few brief, transcendent moments, feel like a part of some special cosmic union.

Clearly, Ferris is far from the most talented or interesting person in the scene — he's not even really singing, or doing much of anything besides holding a microphone. Yet he manages to create something bigger and more important than himself, to unlock some hidden thing in the people around him, whether it’s sick dance moves or a questionable singing voice or just a pure feeling of joy.

And really that’s what Ferris does for the entire movie. His sister Jeanie’s fury toward him leads her to make out with a hot delinquent and eventually find it in herself to stop caring about her brother’s antics and be the bigger person. His BFF Cameron realizes — after Ferris’s actions give him no other choice — that he has to face his father and have a real conversation with him for once. And his school’s dean, Mr. Rooney, is finally forced to come down from his ill-advised power trip.

As Jen Chaney points out at Uproxx, “He may be the protagonist, but Ferris remains entirely unchanged in this movie.” He’s the black hole at the center of the swirling vortex of chaos he creates, and his real significance is in how dealing with his antics forces the people around him to change in response.

Maybe (if fan theory is to be believed) Ferris’s luck eventually runs out, and he ends up a bitter, grasping man feuding with a charismatic, manipulative young nemesis not unlike his former self. After all, what looks like charmingly roguish behavior when it’s coming from a teenager looks genuinely alarming and even legally actionable when it's coming from an adult. But if Ferris’s selfish, terrible acts let Cameron and Jeanie, the unsung heroes of the film, lead better lives, that’s something to say danke schön for.

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