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‘Breaking Away’ Is As Close to Perfection as a Film Can Be

‘Breaking Away’ is one of the greatest sports movies of all time, but more importantly, it’s an incredible exploration of humanity through character.
Breaking Away Essentials
20th Century Fox
By  · Published on November 26th, 2016

Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores the cinematic bliss known as ‘Breaking Away.’

We recently published a group post where several of us chose our favorite “happy place” movie – the films we turn to when we’re in need of a relaxed recharge of our weary souls. I obviously chose Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky, but while that Hong Kong masterpiece is a brainless joy there’s another film that brings me even more happiness while also delivering rich characters, smart writing, big laughs, and real heart.

Bloomington, Indiana is a town divided. It’s a class thing, ignored or accepted by most of its citizens, but for Dave (Dennis Christopher), Mike (Dennis Quaid), Cyril (Daniel Stern) and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley), their designation as “cutters” is both a source of pride and disdain. The term, originally used to to identify the men who worked the nearby quarry, has become something of a derogatory term for the town’s locals when uttered by the “rich kids” attending the university. While those kids have a path in life the cutters haven’t given their future nearly as much thought.

Dave’s the most put-together of the quartet with a focus on bicycle racing and his love of the Italian cycling team – much to the dismay of his blue collar dad and eternally accepting mom (an absolutely terrific Paul Dooley and Barbara Barrie) – and he even woos a college girl while pretending to be Italian. Disappointment in the form of fallen heroes and collegiate bullies finds the four friends at a crossroad as the real world infringes on their lazy afternoons, and as is often the case in real life it all comes down to a bike race.

Cycling plays a real role here, but this barely qualifies as a sports film. I’m not much of a sports movie guy truth be told – as evident by my list of the 10 Best Sports Movies for People Who Don’t Care About Sports, which yes, of course includes Breaking Away – but director Peter Yates (Bullitt, The Friends of Eddie Coyle) and writer Steve Tesich (The World According to Garp) wisely use a pair of races as a conflict and a road to triumph while devoting the bulk of the film to the characters.

The first race sees Dave’s Italian-accented dreams come crashing down when he gets the chance to compete alongside his idols, Team Cinzano, in a state competition held in Indianapolis. He pulls past them with kind words and spoken respect only to be intentionally knocked off the road by one of the Italians. It devastates him. “Everybody cheats,” Dave says to his dad afterward with his head hanging low. “I just didn’t know.”

It’s a mini-heartbreak compounded by his decision to reveal the truth of his nationality to Katherine (Robyn Douglass), the college girl he’s been seeing as an Italian, which results in her slapping his face and walking away. Dave takes all of it as a message that he should let his aspirations go and accept the life of a cutter, and it’s here where his dad finally connects.

After failing to understand why Dave chose to act like an outsider championing people and ideas beyond the boundaries of their town, the teen’s newfound distress finally brings the two together. Dave’s dad takes him on a walk through the college campus and points out the stone buildings saying that he helped create them with his own two hands as a younger man working the quarry.

“I was proud of my work,” he says, “and the buildings went up. When they were finished the damnedest thing happened. It was like the buildings were too good for us. Nobody told us that. It just felt uncomfortable, that’s all.” It’s a tender moment of a father acknowledging that his own accomplishments are meant to be exceeded by his son’s, and it pairs beautifully with his newly-minted excitement for Dave and company’s big race at the film’s end.

After a dust-up between the Cutters and a large group of college guys it’s ruled that the town’s upcoming bike race – one typically reserved for university teams – will include a spot for the locals. The newly disillusioned Dave is against it at first, but he’s compelled by his friends to lead their four-man team. They’re technically underdogs, but his already demonstrated skill and heart make them a legitimate contender. This second race remains one of cinema’s most satisfying and suspenseful crowd-pleasers, and no matter how many I watch the ending always leaves me teary-eyed and smiling.

Breaking Away was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture and won for Best Original Screenplay, but regardless of the awards it won or should have won (which is all of them) the film’s true lasting power is in the near universal effect it has on viewers.

And that effect is pure delight.

Part coming of age comedy, part underdog sports tale, and part glimpse into small-town America, the film is an effortless joy as it explores a tight friendship approaching the inevitable. Dave is the focus here, but each of the four have their own personal dramas pulling them in various directions, and the frustrations that come from their perceived limitations are sincere. We feel for each of them, and we’re just as quick to cheer them on.

Quaid does strong work in one of his earliest roles as a young man who rages against the system yet still allows that same system to shape who he is, and watching him struggle against that revelation shows a conflict between his outer physique and inner fragility. Moocher is the brunt of numerous height-related jokes, but Haley maintains an inner confidence proving the old adage about small packages. Stern has probably the toughest role of the three as Cyril’s the least developed and most solitary, but he makes that loneliness palpable where it sits just beneath his comic exterior. Christopher gets to have a lot of fun as Dave, and his antics and perceived melodrama serve to create quite a bit of the film’s humor. Brief turns from Hart Bochner, John Ashton, and PJ Soles also bring smiles.

There’s a sweet and simple honesty here, and it flows throughout the film in its mostly optimistic take on youth, family, and friendship. Optimism and honesty don’t frequently go hand in hand, but here, even as we suspect the future will hold more serious struggles for our heroic foursome, we can’t help but believe they’ll make it together or apart. The film never pretends to be anything more than it is, and in the process it becomes as close to perfection as a movie can be.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.