REVIEW: Breaking Away [1979]

“Oh Dave, try not to become Catholic on us”

It may be dated and it may be somewhat obvious—aren’t all sports feel-good films—but Breaking Away is a pretty great piece of cinema, melding coming-of-age dramedy with underdog athleticism. I’m not sure you could really pigeonhole it solely into one of those two categories; it’s definitely a symbiotic relationship. Centered on a foursome of childhood friends in Bloomington, Indiana, (where the entire movie was shot), director/producer Peter Yates and writer Steve Tesich shares a tale of finding one’s place and identity in life. Always looked upon as outsiders as they are relegated to second-class citizens following their stonecutter, blue-collar fathers, these boys refuse to give themselves a shot just as the town has also given up on them. Without any drive to go to college and all dreams of getting a sport’s scholarship shattered, each needs to accept his lot in life or be brave enough to reach further and break free from the pack.

The star of the story is Dennis Christopher’s Dave, a quiet kid that did well in school, but never figured out that next step. Asking to take a year off and discover himself, his used car salesman dad complies until he sees the direction he’s headed. Idolizing an Italian cycling team, Dave takes up the sport and becomes the best, aspiring to reach the caliber of his heroes and perhaps get a chance to race them when they come to town for their sponsor’s local competition. He takes the lifestyle a bit too far, however, not only rendering his bike and he inseparable, but also trying to adopt the culture of Italy, even going as far as talking with a fake accent. It’s an attempt at method acting for sure, doing all he can as an Italian to strive and reach their vaunted status; if that means shaving his legs, speaking to a Catholic God, and learning the language through old vinyl records, well that’s exactly what he will do. That exotic country is his escape from the failures and disappointments that have followed him around for almost nineteen years. He can’t actually leave his hometown, so he brings Europe to Indiana.

Dave isn’t the only one too afraid to detach himself from the safety of adolescence; his three friends lack ambition and courage too. Dennis Quaid is the worst offender—an ex-star quarterback, Mike was denied a scholarship and thus resigned himself to watching everyone else take a shot at the football team he believes should be his at Indiana University. Unable to even light a cigarette in case by some miracle he is asked to step in, the confused kid becomes a freeloader, picking fights and wasting his days swimming and waxing poetic about what ‘could have been’ rather then making the hypothetical a reality. The leader of this generation of local ‘Cutters’, Mike believes they will all just stay and grow together; get the same job and waste away to the bitter shells of men their fathers have become. Cyril and Moocher have different ideas, though, going behind his back to weigh their options and move on. Fearful of the consequences in leaving their cliques’ self-appointed president behind, they sneak around and apply for college and a marriage license respectively, willing to grow up and take that next step, one that stands for adulthood, a leap forward towards smashing the mold that has been set before them.

It is great seeing guys like Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley so young and yet so recognizable, actors looking to make a name in the industry much like their characters in the film. These are the wingmen that will do anything for their buddies at the neglect of themselves. Stern’s Cyril is willing to help Dave fake his way into wooing a young co-ed named Katherine, (Robyn Douglass), with his Italian façade, even taking the beating that was meant for the young Casanova and refusing to snitch the culprit’s name to Mike—looking for retribution—at the risk of exposing how Dave has a girlfriend. And when the chips are down during the showcase cycling match, pitting the Cutters against the college jocks that have continuously been putting them down, it’s Haley’s Moocher who steps to the plate when everyone else gives up. Dave might be the athlete that all their hopes were pinned on, but when he goes down with injury, it’s Moocher who believes in the team and a no quit attitude. Maybe the world is full of cheaters, maybe our idols are just as fallible and pathetic as we assume we are, but sometimes we need to rise above those constraints and reach our true potential. The only person that needs to believe in you is yourself.

That is what Breaking Away is all about. Dave isn’t a professional cyclist looking to win some sort of championship; he is just a kid without direction looking for a reason to accomplish something. All four of the leads need that kick in the pants to realize their folks worked so hard to give them the opportunities they didn’t have growing up. These guys didn’t work sixty-hour weeks cutting stone at the quarry to watch their kids become trapped into the same lifestyle. Each local has a chip on his shoulders, more inclined to stay and do manual labor than get an education because it will show how ‘strong’ he is; so stubborn that he’ll sabotage his own meal ticket from spite, all for an image everyone frowns upon anyway. They may not get the girls when their college counterparts have money and cars, they may not become valedictorian and get the job graduates seek, but sometimes the opportunity to show your enemy what you’re made of, even if just at a 200-lap bike race, is all you need to finally have faith in yourself. It’s all about that first step, succeeding for your friends and yourself while seeing your parents proud of something you’ve done, opening the floodgates to let the limitless possibilities flow through. Funny, endearing, authentic, and uplifting—as far as family films with a message for young adults go, you don’t get much better than this.

Breaking Away 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


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