I can’t quite remember when I first saw 1979’s Breaking Away, though I do have specific memories of my dad and brother reenacting lines from the movie – specifically Daniel Stern chirping “What’s your major?” and Paul Dooley ranting “Refund! Refund!”
The film always resonated with me, even as a child. But, re-watching the movie as an adult turned out to be a totally different experience. I related so heavily to the characters, even though you could make the case that the film is very much from a male point of view. The female roles in the film are very limited and not really very important. But, great stories and likable characters transcend gender and this film has both.
In case you haven’t seen it, Breaking Away, directed by Peter Yates and written by Steve Tesich, follows a group of four boys just out of high school in Bloomington, Indiana. They’re not in college and they’re not working. They’re sort of just bumming around – swimming in the quarry, making fun of the college kids, and generally trying to figure out what they want to do next.
Our protagonist is Dave (Dennis Christopher), an idealistic young man obsessed with Italian culture and their cycling team. His parents, played by the wonderful Paul Dooley and Barbara Barrie, are starting to wonder what he’s doing. Side note: Apparently, Barbara Barrie was essential to getting the film made. At the time, she was the biggest name in the cast. Anyway, Dave is in love with Katherine, a college girl. Intimidated by her, he pretends to be Italian and names himself Enrico. No doubt, it catches up to him.
His friends are Mike (a young Dennis Quaid), Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley), and Cyril (Daniel Stern). Mike was the high school quarterback. He’s always looking for a fight, something to prove he’s worth just as much as college kids. Moocher is in love with Nancy, although he lies to his friends constantly, telling them, “He’s not seeing her anymore.” Cyril is sort of the one left out to dry, so to speak. He doesn’t really get much of his own story. But, the story he has Daniel Stern makes the most of.
There’s so much to discuss about the narrative of the film. What I connected to when I recently re-watched it was Dave’s journey and loss of innocence. Dave idolizes this Italian cycling team, but when he finally meets them, they’re assholes – further backing up the old adage “you should never meet your heroes.” His idealism is so intensely relatable and its dissolution is heartbreaking.
What this film also comments on is the distinction between the classes. Dave’s family is nowhere near rich and Dave’s group of friends are dubbed the cutters by the college kids, not because they cut themselves. In this, cutters is just another word for townies, locals, outcasts. Dave’s dad (Paul Dooley) was working at Dave’s age and never had the option of college, so there’s some resentment there, but at heart, he wants his son to be happy.
At its heart, the film is about friendship. As confused as these boys are, they have each other to back each other up, to figure their lives out.
They all get a little hope for the future by the end – Dave tells Katherine the truth, Mike makes up with his brother and Moocher gets married. But, Cyril…well, Cyril gets nothing! I’m sure he does get something – there just wasn’t enough time in the movie for it.
The end of the film shows the boys in the little 500 bike race in Indiana and I dare you to not cheer for them! The elation of the film’s conclusion is infectious.
If you’ve never seen Breaking Away, I highly recommend giving it a watch. It’ll make you laugh and cry and cheer – everything a movie is supposed to do! Also, the film won the Academy Award for best screenplay, so…
Vintage trailer below: