Breaking Away (1979)

1 Apr

Breaking-Away_-Cutters-Boys

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Breaking Away” is a funny, cheerful, and unpretentious movie that is one of the great feel-good movies that I’ll always remember. It has a wonderful screenplay, great acting, sharp direction, and most importantly, it has a spirit that leaps out at you, but doesn’t seem to slam in your face and force you to be pleased by what it has to offer. That’s what makes “Breaking Away” a small masterpiece.

It’s a coming-of-age tale featuring four kids living in Bloomington, Indiana. These kids are just out of high school and labeled as “cutters.” A “cutter” is a slang term to describe the workers of the town’s limestone quarries; most of them are “townies” who never went to college. That fits these four nineteen-year-old boys who want to spend one last summer with each other before making valuable choices in life, like college and jobs. They’re slowly but surely breaking away from each other, as it seems.

The main focus of the lead characters is Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher), who not only wants to be a champion bike racer, but an Italian one. He has it in his head that he can simply be Italian and drives his father (Paul Dooley, who is easily the standout of the actors in this movie) to near madness. His mother (Barbara Barrie) is more passive, but his father can hardly seem to stand to further hear Italian opera, eat “ini” foods (zucchini, fettuccini, etc.), and listen to his son talk in an Italian accent, saying words like “ciao” and calling him “papa.”

Dave has his own racing bike and trains for a big race against some Italian champions, who are coming to town for a big race. But in the meantime, he sincerely tries to win his father’s respect again (and even works at the car lot where his father cons college students into buying lousy used cars). And he also is hopelessly in love with an attractive college student named Katherine (Robyn Douglass), who really believes that he’s an Italian exchange student. That’s how far Dave has taken his Italian interests.

Dave’s friends each have some sort of ambition in life. The former high school football jock Mike (Dennis Quaid) would love to play college ball, but may just stick around town. He likes to say he isn’t interested in playing college ball, but he really is. The tall, goofy Cyril (Daniel Stern) has very little ambition in life, but wallows in knowing so. And the short-for-his-age Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) is secretly planning to marry his girlfriend. But for them, it really does feel like something is missing in their lives and we wonder, as much as they do, what really is in store for them in the future.

A lot happens in “Breaking Away” and most of it is with offbeat humor and characterization. All of the characters are fully realized and have their own quirks and personalities. The dialogue in the screenplay by Steve Tesich mixes realism with comedy to make it seem like these are everyday jokes that young people trade amongst each other in reality. We know the film is scripted, but it doesn’t seem so, even though the dialogue includes some weird humorous lines of dialogue.

But the film has moments of cheerfulness, including one sequence in which Dave races a semitrailer truck on his racing bicycle, along the highway. That scene is wonderfully directed by Peter Yates, who knows how to direct action scenes (one of his films is “Bullitt”). That scene, and a few others, takes a hint at potential disaster that doesn’t occur. They’re well-directed moments of pure pleasure. And then, we get to a big bicycle race—not with Dave and the Italians, but with the four cutters and the college students. This would have been impossible to direct, even after the scene I mentioned before with the truck, but it’s shot and directed with as much high energy to make us want to cheer for the cutters to win the race.

On to the acting—this is a wonderfully acted ensemble piece. Dennis Christopher is likable and gets our attention in his misadventures, whether it’s with his father, with his new girlfriend, or with bicycle racing. He’s great here, and so are the actors playing his friends—Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, and Jackie Earle Haley. They effectively capture the lack of confidence they have in their lives as they watch, with resentment, what college students have for themselves. Paul Dooley is hilarious in the role of Dave’s father who just can’t seem to take anymore of Dave’s Italian attentions to family. He rants and raves, even yelling to the cat that his name is “Jake” and not “Fellini,” as if he’s about to explode. It’s a very funny running joke. But he’s also a “cutter” just as much as his son and his friends. There’s a cute scene in which he and his son walk around a college campus and he and his son talk about what has been, what could be, and what could have been—these are two generations of Bloomington natives talking about their thoughts of a big university. And last but not least, Barbara Barrie, as Dave’s mother, is sweet and loving, but she also has to play straight to Dooley’s outbursts. When that is done, she’s quite funny too.

“Breaking Away” is a wonderful, endearing movie—one of the best coming-of-age films I’ve ever seen. It made me feel good inside and it has a sincerity that comes with quirkiness, realism, and high spirits. Count that with the acting, writing, and direction and “Breaking Away” is a small masterpiece.

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