Breaking Away (1979)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in All Play and No Work | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Rent it, borrow it, buy it; you will not demand a refund. A tad bit of mild language and content best suited for near-teens.

Teenagers know what it’s like to be misunderstood and alienated all too well. At times, they desire nothing more than experiencing the comfort of knowing they “fit in.” And they’ll go to great lengths in pursuit of that feeling, only to eventually realize that they’re trying to be someone they’re not, and begrudgingly accept themselves for who they are. The adolescent characters in Breaking Away embody these struggles perfectly, and though we traditionally associate them with teenagers, many youths start down these journeys much earlier, making this feel-good classic a must-see for the pre-teen crowd.

This coming-of-age flick follows four 19-year-old guys who decided to take one year off after high school to have some fun before making major life decisions and, likely, going their separate ways.

Each of the four young men – played by fledgling actors who you now know as stars – are unique, interesting, and empathetic. The high school quarterback, Mike (Dennis Quaid), desperately wants to prove his worth by playing athletics at the next level, but pretends he’s above all that. The short kid, Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley of Bad News Bears and Little Children), is clearly aching for a more adult life, with a job and a family of his own. The tall kid, Cyril (Daniel Stern), wants to prove to his father that he’s not a worthless idiot and that he’s good at something. The strangest of the bunch, and the one we spend the most time with, is Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher). Dave wants to be the greatest Italian cyclist in history. There’s one problem: he’s not Italian.

The whole story unfolds in the working class town where the kids grew up, known as Bloomington, Indiana. If you’re a Big Ten sports nut, you’ll likely know it as the site of Indiana University. The town comes with an inherited tension between the elitist university frat boys and the know-nothing townies, who the college kids call “cutters” due to the town’s infamous limestone quarry factories where seemingly everyone in town used to work. Added to the boys’ tensions, three of them secretly hope to go to school there and try to win attention from the people who inherently look down on them.

It’s due to some embarrassing Breaking2scuffles between the two groups that the school’s dean decides to expand the field for the university’s much-anticipated Little 500 bicycle race. This is the extent of the film as a “sports movie.” Perhaps 20 minutes can be argued as sports content, and, unlike nearly all sports movies, the most interesting points are not the “big game” or training sequences. Yet the filmmakers build our anticipation so masterfully and shoot the sequences with equal craftsmanship that Sports Illustrated named it No. 8 in the best sports movies of all time, and American Film Institute named it No. 8 in both the sports movies and most inspiring movies categories.

Breaking Away is so much more than a mere sports movie. It’s an underrated comedy and examination of class as well. Dave’s preoccupation with Italy is an ongoing joke that spreads to his embracing mother (Barbara Barrie) and a popular sorority girl (Robyn Douglass). His father (Paul Dooley), however, isn’t so wooed.

“Buon giorno, Papa!” Dave emphatically greets.

“I’m not your papa, I’m your god-damned father!” Dooley comically responds, echoed later when he yells at Dave for renaming the cat Fellini, or for the constant opera records, and even his diet. “That’s I-tey food. I know I-tey food when I hear it. It’s all them eenie foods: zucchini, linguini, fettuccini. I want some American food dammit; I want French fries.”

Dave’s father not only provides 99 percent of the film’s laughs, but also gives insightful perspective on the town’s class struggle in a simple yet excellent scene. It seems he, and all of Dave’s friends’ fathers, cut the stones for nearly every building in town (including the university). “I loved it. … I was proud of my work,” he tells his son. “And the buildings went up. When they were finished the damnedest thing happened. It was like the buildings was too good for us. Nobody told us that. It just felt uncomfortable, that’s all.”

Little did he know that the same stigma would hold true for his son, and any other child born in town. Like any caring father, he hopes that his son would accomplish something more, perhaps starting with college. “Hell, I don’t want to go to college. To hell with them. I’m proud of being a cutter,” Dave says.  “You’re not a cutter,” his father retorts; “I’m a cutter.”

Isn’t the trend, throughout history, that the most perceptive accounts of a place are made by outsiders? In this case it was British director Peter Yates (Bullitt and The Deep) and Yugoslavian screenwriter Steve Tesich. Tesich spent the first 14 years of his life in Yugoslavia before going to Indiana University, where he rode in the Little 500, and won it thanks to a friend named Dave Blase, who did 139 of the race’s 200 laps. This, his most popular screenplay, led to a short-lived TV show and even a Bollywood remake.

Breaking Away was nominated for Oscars in the categories of best picture, director, and supporting actress, but the screenplay was the only one to snag a statue … and did so deservingly. The Academy should be kicking themselves for not recognizing Dooley, however, as he has never been better and I can’t imagine any other actor doing it quite so well.

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