An Oscar winner for Best Screenplay and a nominee for Best Picture, Breaking Away is one of the true gems of the late ’70s. While the film is inarguably a feel-good sports tale with a big race for a climax—which is to say that the story traffics in formulaic elements—Breaking Away explodes with so much in the way of memorable acting, characterization, and dialogue that the handicap of a preordained ending isn’t crippling. From start to finish, screenwriter Steve Tesich and director Peter Yates ground the story in specificity, separating Breaking Away from the pack of routine inspirational athletic pictures. Tesich, a Yugoslavian native whose family relocated to Indiana when he was a teenager, brings a unique outsider/insider viewpoint to this perspective on American culture; he captures the colorful textures of American idiom while evincing a sharp consciousness of class divisions. Further, the credible qualities of Tesich’s script enable the film’s four principal actors to sculpt distinct (and distinctly likable) personalities.
Breaking Away’s protagonist is Dave (Dennis Christopher), a recent graduate from an Indiana high school who’s obsessed with a celebrated group of Italian bicyclists. Accordingly, even though Dave’s a corn-fed townie who spends his afternoons at a swimming hole with fellow high-school grads Cyril (Daniel Stern), Mike (Dennis Quaid), and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley)—none of whom have clear plans for the future—Dave emulates Italian culture by singing along to opera and speaking Italian at every opportunity. This causes great consternation for Dave’s working-class dad, Ray (Paul Dooley); Ray’s befuddled rants about his kid’s abandonment of U.S. culture are endlessly entertaining. As the story progresses, Dave gets romantically involved—under false pretenses—with a pretty Indiana University coed, Katherine (Robyn Douglass), and he also decides to enter an annual bike race called the “Little 500.” Dave’s nervy encroachment into the rarified collegiate world exacerbates tensions between upper-crust students and blue-collar locals. (The college kids pejoratively refer to locals as “cutters” because limestone mining is a venerable local industry.)
You can pretty much guess where things go from here, and, indeed, the story features lots of oppressor-vs.-underdog standoffs. Yet the joy of Breaking Away is the journey, not the destination. For instance, the ensemble scenes involving Dave’s friends feature crisp dialogue, naturalistic acting, and a warm sense of camaraderie. On a deeper level, the sense of anxiety these young men express speaks volumes about the fraught lives of people restricted by limited choices. Christopher, Haley, Quaid, and Stern function as a cohesive unit, even though Christopher has more scenes than anyone else, and their enchanting work is complemented by great supporting turns from Dooley and Barbara Barrie (who plays Ray’s wife). The actors playing IU snobs don’t fare quite as well, since their roles lack equal measures of complexity, but everyone is effective in his or her way. Director Yates, who often made thrillers such as Bullitt (1968) and The Deep (1977), captures Tesich’s humanistic storyline in an unvarnished style that suits the material, and his filmmaking soars during the climactic bike race.
Breaking Away: OUTTA SIGHT