Ferris Bueller may be the center of the movie's universe, but it's his best friend and fellow high school senior Cameron Frye that's the emotional center of the film. Over the course of his day off, Cameron evolves from a brooding, insecure hypochondriac into a confident young man, ready to take on his emotionally distant father.
And he eats pancreas.
His House Is Like a Museum
Cameron starts the film sick. Later, Ferris confesses that Cameron is sick a lot, and, frankly, Ferris doesn't blame him. "His home life is really twisted," Ferris explains. "That's why he's sick all the time. It really bothers him. He's the only guy I know who feels better when he's sick. If I had to live in that house, I'd probably pray for a disease, too." His house is cold, and his parents are even colder. His health is one of the few things that Cameron can control.
When the kids are at the Chicago Board of Trade and Ferris tells Sloane she has no good reason not to marry him—you know, aside from being the only high school cheerleader with a husband—Cameron pipes in and says his parents are two good reasons: his dad loves his car, but he hates his wife. Later, when Cameron kicks the Ferrari, shouting at his absent father, "Who do you love? You love a car!" it's pretty clear that Cameron feels his dad not only loves his ride more than his old lady, but also has little use for his son.
So, yeah—it's hard to blame Cameron for wanting to hide out in bed all day.
In VQR, Steve Almond points out that, unlike Ferris, who leads a fantastically charmed life, "Cameron is an actual teenager: alienated from his parents, painfully insecure, angry, depressed" (source). This is a kid that's lived under a metric ton of rules, and as a result, is basically paralyzed by indecision and fear.
How about the scene when Cameron can't decide if he's going to play hooky with Ferris? "He'll keep calling me until I come over," Cameron says to himself as he sits behind the wheel of his car. "He'll make me feel guilty. This is…ridiculous. Okay, I'll go, I'll go, I'll go, I'll go, I'll go—" and then he doesn't. Cameron rides out a maelstrom of indecision: turning the car on and off, screaming, beating the passenger's seat, getting in and out of the car, and even jumping up and down in exasperation like a cartoon.
Cameron's inertia is played for laughs in this scene, but when you really think about it, it's... not that funny. "It's heartbreaking," Almond claims. "We are watching a kid utterly crippled by his own conflicted impulses, torn between outrage and obedience" (source). Growing up in a house like a museum with a bunch of rules and two emotionally distant parents has rendered Cameron powerless.
Mighty Morphin' Power Cameron
Cameron's lack of clout and confidence allow him to be steamrolled by Ferris.
In a word, Cameron's scared. So when his BFF Ferris think it's a good idea to steal the Ferrari for the day, Cameron's not going to resist. He's too timid, too weak. The same goes for when they're out and about playing Chicago tourist. Cameron repeatedly says he wants to go home, but does he ever push the issue or do anything about it? Nope. He has no power to affect change, and he knows it. He's made a long career out of not challenging authority.
Cameron is basically the poster child for teenage angst and frustration. "If anyone needs a day off, it's Cameron," argues Ferris. "He has a lot of things to sort out before he graduates." Um, you can say that again. Cameron has lost his sense of self in a sea of anxiety.
That's what's up when Cameron's at the Art Institute of Chicago, looking deep into Georges Seurat's "A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte," a.k.a., the painting with all the dots. Cameron sees himself in the painting, specifically in the tormented little girl being ignored by her mom. The camera zooms in deeper and deeper on Cameron's eyes and on the girl until there is no girl anymore—just dots. Cameron recognizes himself not only in the little girl's pain but also in her lack of presence. In other words, he looks at her, and he feels like he's just a collection of dots, too.
Why Cameron Should Send the Parking Attendant a Fruit Basket
Cameron worries about everything. Occasionally, though, he's right to be paranoid.
Take Dean Rooney, for example. When Cameron impersonates Sloane's dad on the phone with Rooney, he tells Ferris that he's scared Rooney's on to them. And he totally is—Rooney spends the entire day hunting the truant teens.
Cameron's also right to be worried about the parking attendant with whom they entrust his dad's beloved Ferrari. Cameron doesn't trust him, and his worries are validated when the attendant takes off with his dad's baby for the day, thereby setting Cameron up for some major punishment at the hands of his pop.
Here's the thing, though. Leaving the car with the ponytailed speed freak? It's the best thing Cameron does all day: it sets off a chain of events that leads Cameron to an epiphany.
When Cameron discovers that the parking attendant put 175 miles on his dad's Ferrari, he loses it, launching into an emotional breakdown that leaves him catatonic. When he finally snaps out of it, he's found his inner strength. "You know, that whole time, I was just thinking things over," Cameron explains:
CAMERON: I was, like, meditating. Then I sort of watched myself from the inside. I realized it was ridiculous, being afraid, worrying about everything, wishing I was dead, all that s***. I'm tired of if. This is the best day of my life.
The best day of his life? Thanks, shady parking garage guy—your reckless unprofessionalism was the catalyst for Cameron Frye finally manning up.
Don't Let the Title of the Film Fool You
Cameron is the film's protagonist. The end.
Ferris may outwit his parents and escape an obsessed dean of students, but Cameron experiences a legit catharsis. While Ferris has fun catching foul balls and reveling in his logic-defying luck, Cameron purges his fears, grows in confidence, and reclaims his sense of identity.
In short, Ferris may be the center of Shermer, Illinois, but Cameron's the center of the movie's narrative. He grows more than any other character, and his evolution is the most authentic. Ferris Bueller's Day Off is Cameron Frye's coming of age story.