There’s nothing like ‘sticking it to the system’—but what if you’re a teenager and the odds of the whole adult world are stacked against you? Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and Rushmore (1998) both feature young adults who use their ingenuity to beat the system.
In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off the hero, Ferris, decides to pull a sickie and take the day off school to hang out with his girlfriend, and his best friend. His fun day becomes a celebration of his time at school (which will end when he goes to university), and the importance of friendship. Ferris is a cheeky, geeky-but-cool, teenage hero, an alfa male in-the-making. A natural salesman, whatever life throws at him he can talk his way out of it. Max Fischer in Rushmore is also geekily intelligent, but less of an alfa male and more of an odd-ball character destined to be a playwright. Both characters are masters of their own worlds—they shape the things that are happening around them. Through their persistence, charisma and conviction they’re able to keep their followers (their band of heroes) energized and motivated, ensuring that these supporters can fill a part in one of his upcoming plays, or provide an expensive sports car for a joyride.
Both Ferris and Max face stubborn opponents, especially adults who exercise power. Principal Rooney is desperate to catch the super-smart Ferris playing truant and teach him a lesson. Max faces peer enemies in school, and a disillusioned industrialist, Herman Blume, who competes with him for Rosemary Cross’s romantic attention. Where Ferris is a Hollywood ‘hero’, a classical hero born into the modern world, someone we know will never loose; Max is an independent film anti-hero so there’s less certainty if he will succeed. Ferris is all positivity, energy and upbeat salesmanship. The only dark vibe comes from his depressed friend Cameron Frye. Max, on the other hand, has a dark world that mirrors his escapist fantasy life. Ferris and Max make things work, because they’re persistent and able to adapt. Rushmore is different from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off because of Max’s vulnerability. He uses fantasy to escape from the reality of his impoverished working-class background and the death of his mother. There’s a persistent fantasy and reality theme, which is accentuated by Max’s passion for producing and directing extravagant theatrical dramas with adult themes. Max’s comic likability comes from the disconnect between his aggrandized self-perception, and his real place in the world. This is especially true with his crush on the adult teacher Rosemary Cross with whom he doesn’t stand a chance.
Ferris, much like Joel Goodson in Risky Business (1983), was born to charm and energize the world around him, to use their quick thinking and natural salesmanship to dazzle and outwit their opponents. But they are heroes from the 1980s and echo the decade’s materialism and lust for money and glamour. Max is a 1990s anti-hero, more akin to a sensitive indie musician. His charm lies in his elaborate coping mechanisms that he uses as a working-class boy in a posh private school for the super-rich. He tells people that his father is a brain surgeon, when in fact he’s a barber.
The outcome of Rushmore sees Max finally accepting reality, and his own limitations. In becoming himself he can see beyond his selfish motives and salvage his friendships. It’s only through this process that earns true friendship and can form a working romantic relationship. The tension in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off comes from fear of Ferris being caught out by his parents or Principal Rooney, and less overtly from a concern that while Ferris gets everything his way, his friend Cameron Frye will lose out: not only is Ferris using him, but Cameron will get the blame for destroying his father’s precious sports car. Ferris turns the disaster around by using the moment to convince Cameron to stand up to his dominant father, and in that moment Cameron realizes that his depression and inadequacy are derived from his fear of his father—and by standing up for himself he will become a new person. This change of thinking is only possible because Ferris has already saved Cameron from drowning, which cemented the trust between them. Despite Ferris’s self-centeredness, he’s still there for his friends.
Both stories are rites of passage. They are about leaving the transient familiarity and friendships of school, and moving into the adult world. These celebratory stories feature two very different characters who are both ultimately successful because they’re able to make things right, which bodes well for their future.