Cameron Frye, You’re My Hero
We get to witness one magical day that gives Cameron the courage to change his course — to take a stand.
Garrett Kincaid — June 27, 2021
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is one of my favorite films. It has always fascinated and entertained me. Even though I’ve seen it upwards of 10 times, I always find something new or have something new to think about after watching it.
My most recent rewatch was inspired by an episode of Wisecrack’s Show Me the Meaning podcast, during which they discussed the movie and its many hidden complexities. The whole time I was listening, I just wanted to be on the panel and part of the conversation because I have so much to say. So, here I am saying those things.
This analysis rests on a single observation/assumption, which is the main reason why this movie is so unique and compelling: Cameron Frye is the hero of the story. Sure, it’s Ferris’s name is in the title (and on a water tower), but the film is really Cameron’s story told from the perspective of his best friend. Ferris is our primary perspective character, and Cameron is our hero.
Cameron is flawed, undergoes growth, faces real threats and real stakes, and is at the center of the film’s climax. Ferris, though he is also flawed, remains unchanged, quickly and effortlessly overcomes the challenges he faces, and doesn’t endure any real consequences for his actions.
If you accept that Cameron is the hero, a few questions arise. What is the structure of Cameron’s hero’s journey? What causes him to change, and who does he become? What role does Ferris play in Cameron’s growth? And the most interesting question to me is: Does Ferris intend to be the catalyst for Cameron’s growth, or is it merely a byproduct of Ferris’s self-absorbed pursuit of a good time?
Meeting Our Hero
Let’s map out Cameron’s hero’s journey, using a version of the story circle, to figure out which parts we see and how Ferris fits into the mix.
Cameron’s hero’s journey picks up a half-beat late and is truncated at the end. The audience only sees steps 2 through 11 and is left to infer the rest.
First are steps 2 and 3: Cameron’s call to adventure and his immediate refusal of it. It’s a literal call, from Ferris on the phone, saying, “Come on over here and pick me up.” Cameron ultimately decides to go, and when he meets Ferris at his house, he meets his mentor (step 4). Angry at Ferris for making him make a phony phone call to the dastardly dean, Edward Rooney, Cameron nearly refuses the call to adventure again.
He doesn’t cross the threshold (step 5) until he allows Ferris to take the Ferrari out of the garage to pick up Sloane, and then surely crosses the threshold when he lets Ferris take the Ferrari from school and into downtown Chicago for the day. Now, Ferris never asks for permission and shows a real disregard for how taking the car could hurt Cameron. So you might say that Cameron doesn’t choose to cross the threshold, but that’s not the case. Even Cameron says at the end of the film, “I could’ve stopped you. It is possible to stop Mr. Ferris Bueller, you know.”
Cameron’s trials (step 6) are very much internal. He is tested by what Ferris and Sloane (and the audience) experience as fun, care-free activities.
Each trial pushes Cameron to address his fears, his lack of confidence, and the fact that he feels uncertain, helpless, and unloved. One palpable example is the when Ferris asks Sloane if she wants to get married. To Ferris and Sloane, that exchange is a whimsical, shared dream and an expression of their love for each other. For Cameron, it’s a reminder of his parents’ failed marriage and of his belief that he could never develop a healthy and happy romantic relationship.
Cameron eventually acknowledges that he has had a great day and starts to let go of some of his worries — his approach (step 7). But that doesn’t last long. His ordeal, death, and rebirth (step 8) begin when he realizes that the odometer shows 175 additional miles on the Ferrari, courtesy of the valets. For a while, he’s locked in a shocked, comatose state. He breaks that paralysis when he falls into the pool and pulls a cruel prank on Ferris, with a killer punchline: “Ferris Bueller, you’re my hero.”
After his pool coma, Cameron says,
I sort of watched myself from the inside. I realized it was ridiculous. Being afraid, worrying about everything, wishing I was dead — all that shit. I’m tired of it. It’s the best day of my life.
And his rebirth is marked by the following quote:
I am not gonna sit on my ass as the events that affect me unfold to determine the course of my life. I’m gonna take a stand.
Next, Cameron (unintentionally) kills the Ferrari and seizes his reward (step 9). Cameron’s road back (step 10) is how he responds to this motor-murder.
The born-again Cameron isn’t worried about the future, is confident that he can handle what comes his way, and stops listening to Ferris. Ferris tells Cameron to let him take the heat for the Ferrari. The final part of his transition is refusing Ferris. Cameron goes his own way and completes his resurrection (step 11):
When Morris comes home, he and I’ll just have a little chat. It’s cool. No, it’s gonna be good. Thanks anyway.
As I said earlier, we only get a glimpse of Cameron’s ordinary wold. We never meet his parents or see his home life or his daily routine. With Ferris, we get all that context at the beginning of the film with a tour of his room, interactions with family, and his opening monologue. For Cameron, we have to infer the nature of his ordinary world from the information we get throughout the film. And we have to infer, from who Cameron is post-resurrection, how it will all go down when he returns to his ordinary world having killed the car.
That structure makes for a fun and unique experience for the viewer. It’s not telegraphed. We get to be involved in creating Cameron’s story. How will Mr. Frye act during their “little chat?” Will it go according to plan and change Cameron’s daily experience for the better? It’s up to you.
John Hughes, the writer and director of the film, didn’t try and fail to write a protagonist in Ferris. He intended for Ferris to act as the mentor for Cameron, who is and was intended to be the hero.
Meeting the Mentor
Now let’s move to the most interesting question, which is not “Who is the protagonist?” but “What were Ferris’s intentions for the day?”
On the surface, Cameron seems like only an accessory, where his function is to give Ferris companionship and a car to get around in. Most of what you see is Ferris taking from Cameron, not giving to him. But Ferris and Sloane give Cameron the best day of his life. How does that happen?
The short answer is: Ferris intended for it to happen. He may have not intended for the day to affect Cameron to the extent that it does, but Ferris’s day off is for Cameron and is meant to be an opportunity for him to change.
There’s some great evidence for this in the film.
One big indication is how smart and well prepared Ferris is overall. He rigs his whole house with contraptions to maintain his facade; hacks into the school’s attendance log; and he clearly knows who he would be with that day, where they’d be going, and what vehicle they would use to get there. Why would the very purpose of his day be any less thought-out and developed?
Ferris’s goal for his day off is to help Cameron change and overcome his burdens, fears, and anxieties. This is clearest in the dialogue exchange between Ferris and Sloane after they leave Cameron and before Ferris runs home.
Sloane: Do you think Cameron’s going to be okay?
Ferris: Oh, yeah. Yeah, sure. For the first time in his life, he’s gong to be just fine.
Sloane: You knew what you were doing when you woke up this morning, didn’t you?
Ferris: Me? Nah.
Ferris builds the day for Cameron and fights to preserve it in the hopes of giving Cameron the chance to enjoy himself, loosen up, and, ultimately, take ownership of his life. Ferris endeavors to understand what Cameron is going through and tries to provide him with what he needs to grow.
Even if Ferris can’t fully relate to Cameron’s issues, he understands their severity. And he explains that to the camera (partly in French):
Cameron is so tight that if you stuck a lump of coal up his ass, in two weeks you’d have a diamond.
Ferris also says,
If anybody needs a day off, it’s Cameron. He has a lotta things to sort out before he graduates.
During Cameron’s ordeal, Ferris elaborates on his concerns:
Cameron has never been in love. At least, nobody’s ever been in love with him. If things don’t change for him, he’s going to marry the first girl he lays. And she’s gonna treat him like shit.
This sort of awareness is evidence that Ferris want to help Cameron grow.
What Ferris and Cameron share is uncertainty and anxiety about the future, brought on by being in their senior year of high school. Sloane is the most unburdened of the bunch because she’s not yet a senior, and that comes out in how she’s even more careless than Ferris. Ferris, though he’d never show it, longs for direction and needs something challenging and meaningful to focus on. That’s why he takes up the mantle of Mentor — a taller task than successfully eluding his parents and the dean.
Ferris has no idea what he’ll do after he graduates or how he’ll handle his relationship with Sloane, but he’s confident that it’ll all work out for him. He knows that Cameron would benefit from having similar self-confidence. While anxiety about the future paralyzes Cameron, it mobilizes Ferris — gives him a sense of urgency. He’s determined to help Cameron before they both graduate and go their separate ways:
He’ll go to one school, and I’ll go to another. Basically, that will be it.
Ferris understands the stakes and wants to do what he can to help his friend. And, by giving himself that purpose and direction now, he can put off dealing with the uncertainty of his own future.
Ferris isn’t trying to use or manipulate Cameron, and he doesn’t just want to show Cameron a good time. Like Obi Wan, Timon & Pumbaa, Gandalf, Morpheus, Alfred, or Uncle Ben, Ferris intends to initiate and guide Cameron through a process of change — the role of the hero’s mentor. As with everything else Ferris attempts on his day off — whether it’s lip syncing “Danke Schoen” on a float or posing as the Sausage King of Chicago — he succeeds. Ferris helps Cameron change for the better.
What It All Means
First, we pivoted our protagonist from Ferris to Cameron. Then we clarified Ferris’s goal for the day: to be Cameron’s mentor. Now, let’s ask, How does this new outlook change the meaning of the film? Or, how does it change what a viewer may take away from it?
By refocusing on Cameron, the film becomes the story of a how one day can change an individual forever. And, viewed through that lens, the stakes change completely.
Throughout their day, Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron face threats of getting caught by Ferris’s parents or by Ed Rooney. On the surface, it seems like the consequence of getting caught would be a grounding or Ferris having to repeat senior year. But the true, more severe consequence of getting caught is that Cameron would miss out on the opportunity to grow. If the day hadn’t been successful, Cameron may have been thrown deeper into the struggles he already faces, with less of a will to overcome them.
Imagine if they had totaled the Ferrari in the morning, before Cameron had experienced the day. What would that Cameron have done — the Cameron who hadn’t yet experienced his rebirth?
Surely, it wouldn’t have been good. There’s even a chance that Cameron would have committed suicide. Those are the stakes. We’re talking about Cameron’s entire life, and we get to witness one magical day that gives him the courage to change his course — to take a stand.
The film’s narrative structure, through the fun-loving, self-confident perspective of Ferris, gives the audience an easier ride than if we were to see the day from Cameron’s perspective. But, by making Cameron the hero, it also gives the audience access to the deeper issues that the film addresses: depression, anxiety, external pressures, and uncertainty. It’s like if you were to eat a piece of cake that made you question the meaning of life.
I commend Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for straddling genres and offering something that is entertaining throughout, yet grounded in an immediately relevant narrative with palpable points of tension, an unpredictable climax, and a satisfying resolution. Its unique narrative structure enables the film to accomplish so much. Ferris is an incredible example of unconventional storytelling that hits its mark, even 10 times over.