Breaking Away (1979)
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Of course, a nine-year-old lacks the world experience to empirically understand the central messages of this film, and at the time my primary devotion to it was centered around Dave Stoller's orange Masi racing bike, a thing that I coveted with the passions of a kid on Christmas Eve.
The movie made me mad with bicycle lust, and I frowned on every Huffy I saw at school. I used to draw pictures of Masi, Bianchi and Olmo bikes all the time after seeing this, and I shamelessly begged my parents for an Italian-made, Campagnolo-equipped racer - a futile thing to do, as my parents knew not to purchase something that expensive for a boy who would physically out-grow a pair of Levis within a school year. Ultimately, I was propelled into the worship of Eddy Merckx while all my classmates were digging into their Terry Bradshaw Topps cards, unaware - as I'm positive they still are - of who the hell Eddy Merckx even is.
BUT...'Breaking Away' is not just a bicycle film - not by a long-shot, and I knew it then too, but that just wasn't very important to me at a time when bicycles were all-important.
Despite my youthful energies, I never did pursue bicycle racing,(although I am definitely a touring enthusiast whose passion for Italian-made bicycles has finally seen fruition) but 'Breaking Away' never left me. It was the REST of the film that eventually got to me - and somewhat later in life - when my emotions and experiences with the world ran deeper.
In short, this film explores many strands: the aimlessness of youth colliding with the responsibilities of adulthood; the often heartbreaking romantic fantasies of people who wish they could be something else; lying and cheating and the false nature of gains made through them; the importance of strong family relations and friendships; and life in small-town America - and it does all this with extraordinary craft, honesty and sensitivity. It's beautiful, and more importantly, it is soulful and original. Although certainly dated in appearance, I'll even toss in the cliche that it is *timeless*, because the themes and characters are so.
The characters themselves are all wonderfully brought out by the perfect casting - it's been said here, but the fact that Dennis Christopher never achieved star-status is truly a shame and a waste of a potentially amazing talent. He played the lead role with a believable intensity and a really quite perfect understanding of his character. Dave Stoller's painful self-realization after the Cinzano race was as memorable a job of acting as I can think of. Paul Dooley and Barbara Barry were also wonderful, as were Quaid, Stern and Haley - every one of them created a personality for their characters, both in dialogue and physical reaction. The rest of the cast was likewise fine, each actor doing the best they could with what were sometimes stock roles (the college kids, for example, including Robyn Douglas, the female romantic role)
The direction, story and, most especially, the dialogue were great as well.
I also picked up a love of Mendelssohn and Rossini when I was just a kid after seeing this - the film score was superb, all the while taking the Stanley Kubrick/Woody Allen approach by choosing some choice compositions of a time long past, rather than belabor the audience with the refried horrors so typical of modern film-score composition.
I hope this movie doesn't become a relic - it seems its own sleeper status has kept it shelved over the years. Mention it to just about any American born before 1975, and they'll know what it is, but only in the way I did when I was nine: they'll usually say something like, "oh yeah, the bicycle film! I remember that one", and then they'll likely have little else to say about it, which is a shame. I still whole-heartedly place this movie among my very favorites every time, and I trumpet it whenever I get into discussions with other people about the movies I love.
The story takes place in Bloomington, Indiana, (home to Indiana University) one of the bigger college towns in America. It concerns the rivalry between the rich, snobbish college kids and the local townies (called cutters because there fathers cut limestone in the local quarries to build the college, among other things.) The cutters are played superbly by Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley. There is not a false note in any of their performances with Quaid and Christopher special stand-outs. It is interesting to note that of the four, only Quaid and Stern went on to bigger and better things.
What really carries this movie though, are the universal themes that everyone can relate to. We can all relate to at least one of the stars, everyone has gone through what they are going through. Most people realize it as one of the more difficult times in their life (as it is for the characters portrayed in the movie.) What carries them through is their friendship with one another, and the support that that gives them. The movie also touches upon family and how hard it is sometimes to communicate with parents, who always (hopefully) love but sometimes just don't understand. Special mention must be made of Paul Dooley (who plays the father of Dennis Christopher), how he did not receive an oscar nomination much less win the coveted statue, for his performance, remains a mystery to this day. Barbara Barrie is also excellent as the mother.
The story follows the cutters as they try to prove to the college kids that they are real human beings, not outcasts to be looked down upon. As one of the cutters is a champion bike rider, the climax of the film and the contest to prove their worthiness, comes down to the Little 500 Bike Race. This is an annual bike race that is still held at IU and is one of the seminal sporting events of the college year (the screenwriter Steve Tesich, who won an oscar for his screenplay, actually won the Little 500). It is the perfect ending for this remarkable and uplifting film.
Praise must be given to everyone involved with the production, there is not a false note throughout the movie. Peter Yates did a superb job of taking relatively unknown actors coupled with tough subject matter and turning it into a minor classic.
In "Breaking Away" we follow the exploits of four misfits just out of high school who contentedly contemplate a future as dead-enders. They aren't particularly smart, athletic, or good-looking, and they lack any sense of direction in their lives. Moreover, as townies, or "cutters" in a college town, they wear a spell of invisibility in their dealings with the students--the differences are painfully obvious. When they hang out on campus or lamely try to chat up the co-eds, they might as well be ghosts haunting a town they used to inhabit. Something happened when they graduated from high school and didn't go on to college: they became cutters, no better than servants, in their own confused eyes.
When we meet Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher) we think, here's a guy who might be able to break out of his own rut. He seems to be a kid with a little more on the ball than the others. But then we see that he's also the most confused--by far. Dave is wrapped up in a fantasy world where he's an Italian bike racer, a champion of a sport virtually unknown in America at the time. That Dave's charming misfits of friends take him and his delusions in stride shows us the bond of their friendship and shared misery, and just how far off the map they've all slid.
After a chance encounter with a beautiful sorority girl (Robyn Douglass) Dave pretends to be an Italian exchange student in an effort to woo a girl he believes would otherwise be way out of his reach. He draws on his obsessive knowledge of Italian culture and his own quirky charm to fool the girl into seeing him as someone fresh and new, an outsider, but not a misfit. The romance seems to be going somewhere, and Dave feels he's finally breaking away.
While Dave is conducting his fraudulent personal life he also has an opportunity to race with the Italian bike racers he had worshiped from afar. It's his chance to get recognition from the masters of the sport. He may not have much going as a cutter, but he's certain the Italians will see his racing ability and welcome him as one of their own. But when he shows that he can keep up with them in the race, naively hoping for their approval, they throw him into a ditch. Dave's fantasy world comes crashing down.
When Dave realizes that the Italians will fight to protect their turf just as much as the Americans he resents, his first reaction is to give up--"everybody cheats" he says resignedly. And he rejects the friends who had looked to him for something more--his three chums and their own struggles, and the sorority girl, who had seen in him something special.
Only Dave can save Dave, but it is his father's hard words that prompt him into action. To Dave and his friends, a "cutter" is someone who doesn't measure up to the college kids who are going somewhere in their lives. They affect being misfits because a misfit is one rung on the ladder above how they see themselves, which is as losers. But Dave's father points out that "cutters" were the original stonecutters who built the grand buildings on the campus. They may not be college-educated, Dave's father says, but to them "cutter" is a badge of honor for the hard-working men who built something real out of the flat earth. Dave will never be a "cutter", he says, meaning a man of accomplishment, unless he finds something equally real to do with his own life.
The Indiana Little 500 is a bike race the university holds that is taken very seriously by the groups that participate. At the time, it was the largest race in America, and fraternities counted some of the best American bike racers on their squads. But to Dave and his friends who are invited to race, it is a chance to prove to the students (and themselves) that their lives so far weren't just wasted time.
Yes, Dave is a gifted bike racer, but we already knew that. But the Little 500 (and life) requires that one rely upon not just inner strength, but the creative use of the strengths of others. It is a team race. What Dave learns when testing himself against these college students that he never felt would give him the time of day, is that the biggest obstacle to his own success was himself.
"Breaking Away" is a rich visual tapestry of life lived outside the spotlight. The characters are not fancy or sophisticated, and their life goals are simple and well within reach. It is themselves they struggle with, and their perceptions of themselves. "Breaking Away" is the story of kids who had let their own self-image degrade to the point that a fantasy world, and a life of bitter resentment, seemed like their best option.
This moving drama is on my top ten favorite films of all time. And it should have won the best picture Oscar in 1979, instead of Kramer vs. Kramer. Rating: A PERFECT 10 out of 10.