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Though the expression is hackneyed, if it ever applied to anything, it applies to Breaking Away: They don’t make movies like this anymore. Quirky and intelligent, it is a simple but deeply affecting coming-of-age film that is sensationally authentic and as genuine a movie experience as you will ever see. Feel good sentiment and gut twisting honesty, it is a wonderful story of a boy, his friends, his family, and a little bike race that binds them all.
In the college town of Bloomington, Indiana, four local boys (Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Jackie Earle Haley) with no plans for their futures are destined to be ‘Cutters,’ a sometimes derogatory nickname for the men working the limestone mines and a person with no future, but find inspiration in their support of Dave (Christopher) and his dreams of being a road cycling champion. It is his central passion, a fixation that is his every waking obsession. Fantasizing of riding with the famous Italian team, he practices the language in anticipation of meeting and riding with that team, which obviously concerns those close to him, but is a harmless distraction for Dave, and most accept his exuberant habit.
Dave is an earnest young man, not irresponsible, but seeing cycling as an escape from the seemingly limited future awaiting him. It is the same pressures his friends feel, all high school grads who have reached the end of the educational system and are destined to life in the footsteps of their fathers. Quaid plays Mike, a former star athlete whose glory days are quickly dimming. Stern is Cyril, a gangly follower with little ambition, and Haley plays Moocher, a young man with a girlfriend he wants to marry.
But the town isn’t just known for its quarries, it’s also a college town, but most of the locals can’t afford to get in, yet it’s a place the boys like to go and stir up trouble. It’s also where Dave meets Katherine (Robyn Douglass), a pretty co-ed who he becomes smitten with, convincing her he is an Italian exchange student. A moment with Dave and Cyril serenading her is a delight, and what follows, a perfect example of why the film finds its footing so well.
Directed by Peter Yates, Breaking Away hinges on its characters, giving them time and space to develop, allowing the viewer to appreciate the subtlety of the setting and story in startlingly affecting ways. For example, Dave’s wonderfully supportive parents (Barbara Barrie, Paul Dooley) who put up with their son as he becomes obsessed with Italian cycle racing. These are not just ‘movie parents,’ they are deeply connected characters that have significant weight in the story, not just props for emotional manipulation. Dooley especially is at his best, a precursor of his caring father character years before Sixteen Candles, and doing it better.
There is a moment when Dave finally gets to ride with the Italians, and it is nothing like he expects and is one of the film’s turning points. As Dave comes to realize much about the truth of the real world during this race, the ride ultimately becomes a metaphor for youth itself, about chasing dreams and expectations. Dave’s enthusiasm and misguided admiration of the foreign team are reflective of the childlike innocence and naivety of growing up with heroes on our walls and fantastical dreams seemingly within grasp. While this has nothing to do with giving up dreams (in fact is anything but) there is a lesson Dave’s learns that has dramatic and purposeful intent that echoes much of what being adult truly is. Though it doesn’t mean letting go of the child inside. How the film handles this is one of its greatest achievements.
A decidedly low-budget feel with a surprisingly effective authenticity, the movie is endlessly satisfying and while its ending is by now very familiar, the journey there is a joyous ride that is still impactful decades later. Dave is one of cinema’s most endearing characters, a young man full of promise that finds his way with heart. Seek out this film.