Alan Ruck as Cameron was playing a mentally ill person. This is a hill I will die on. Was he intended to be? That’s a different question. But he undoubtedly was. Cameron had anxiety at the very least. One hopes that, after he broke free of Ferris, he got actual mental health care. Maybe his father made it part of how he dealt with the car issue. You’d hope. There’s a lot that could happen there, and you hope Cameron is somewhere out there living his best life with a Lexapro prescription.
I don’t know if neurotypical people do this. But just as the LGBTQ community has long read certain characters as coded gay, whether that was the creators’ intent or not, mentally ill people read characters as coded mentally ill. You watch a character, and no one says anything; no one says a word. The movie never calls them mentally ill. But you see it, and it’s so obvious to you, and it never comes up.
Part of it is the old problem of representation. It’s so hard not to see yourself onscreen. I’d imagine it’s much harder for people of color; while my childhood head canon coded Mr. Tarbell of Pollyanna as black for reasons I’m not entirely clear on, it’s a lot harder in most movies outside the people so tan they become Ambiguously Ethnic. But when you’re something that has to be actually spoken out loud to be clear, there’s a certain need to see yourself that it’s hard to express.
I have known I was mentally ill since seventh grade and was showing symptoms well before that. It was incredibly isolating before I started knowing more mentally ill people—in adulthood, we tend to clump and form a community, but as a child, you have fewer opportunities to do that. If any of my peers were struggling with mental health issues, I certainly didn’t know about it. And no one in the movies was ever mentally ill. It just didn’t happen. Unless the movie was about it, and usually they ended poorly.
It’s important to end the stigma in our lives, to come forward with our illnesses and be open, to tell the people around us, “Hey, I’m mentally ill, and that joke isn’t funny.” Or similar. But it’s also important for mentally ill children to know they’re not alone. My son finds it enormously helpful to know that there are plenty of other people with his struggles; when it was suggested that he might have a specific condition, he was cool with it because it’s the same as a friend’s. But if I ever show him Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I will watch his reaction to Cameron and see if he sees himself there.