Theme Song: None.
Interesting Dated References: Small town living with independent businesses instead of large chain stores. Integrity.
Best Line: Delivered by Daniel Stern — “Going to college must do something to girls tits, I swear. Just look at ’em.” Delivered by Paul Dooley — “What are you crying for – It’s like you lost your wallet.”
Social Context: As a whole, Breaking Away deals with the struggle of the underprivileged versus the privileged. The main story arc is based on the idea of trying your best against all odds and not being intimidated by more privileged people. Granted, the small world of Breaking Away has little real world application, it still provides a positive lesson for kids sitting at their grandma’s house on a Saturday afternoon.
Summary: It’s hard to find a film as well-regarded around the Midwest by men aged 25-35, most likely because of its constant airing on local stations throughout the 80s, or more directly because of its Midwest locale. Breaking Away is a classic “boys coming of age” story made before such stories had a cookie-cutter formula. It won the Oscar for Best Screenplay in 1979 and was also nominated for Best Picture and Director. Somehow over the years it’s managed to fall through the cracks. It is never cited as the inspiration for or an influence on anything, which is kind of sad because as I revisit it, I’m reminded of the way the characters were so easy to identify with, even when I was like seven. Even back then it had the tendency to fill the young viewer with feelings of hope long before the crushing reality, banality, and disappointment of life took hold.
Breaking Away starts off by introducing us to the four friends that carry the film, all of which are a year out of high school and are relatively poor small town kids. The one thing that makes their struggle slightly unique is that they live in a college town, Bloomington, Indiana to be precise. An extremely young and cut Dennis Quaid plays Mike, the former jock who doesn’t want to work in a factory for the rest of his life. As much as Mike tries to rebel (for example by getting fired from the factory), he stays weighed down in the reality that there is no hope for him to go to college because he is poor and he realizes he is only going to get older and out of shape. Daniel Stern plays Cyril, the quirky, goofy nerd friend that really just seems to be in the film to provide slight comic relief. He looks up to the buff Mike and sort of follows him around. Jackie Haley plays Moocher, the parentless scruffy kid with almost as little hope for the future. In fact Moocher sees his only real prospect as moving to Chicago with his Dad to work in a factory.
Closing out the four friends is Dennis Christopher as Dave, whose character provides the catalyst for the entire story. Dave is the one who is not letting life get him down, but at the same time appears to be living in a fantasy world that revolves around Italian bike races. For the bulk of the film, he spouts off a fake Italian accent and only talks about Italian things. Unfortunately, his performance has not aged well and even when fully immersed in the story it still stands out as a bit irritating.
The first 30 minutes of the film follow the guys around as they do local “townie” things, like swim at the quarry, punch time clocks with their fists, and bitch about life. Mike has a real beef with the college guys and sees them as a reminder he will only get older, but there will always be a crop of Freshmen around. Dave continues to obsess about bike racing and Italian culture. He obsesses so much his Dad, played by an always enjoyable Paul Dooley, does everything to insinuate he is a weirdo/gay guy. It’s a bit unnecessary and repetitive, but it serves to show a general struggle and alienation against parental structure. This element, coupled with the general feeling of alienation from the “rich college kids,” helps to get the story moving.
Eventually, the townie group, whom the college kids refer to as “Cutters” in reference to the main career choice of their fathers being stonecutters, has a big run-in at the local diner. A large fight ensues with an inordinate amount of broken glasses. When the police arrive, they inform the college jocks they are not to fight with the Cutters and if they want to compete with the local kids, they will have a chance in the form of a bike race. Apparently there is a bike race in Bloomington every year sponsored by the college. It seems they changed the rules to allow one local team to compete. Now, in real life there is a race at the college and local teams are allowed to compete. As to wether or not this happened before or after the film, I have no clue. I’m not here to research traditions in Bloomington, Indiana. That’s for you to do on your boss’s time.
Mike is gung-ho about joining the race as a way to defeat those college kids he so vehemently despises. Dave is pensive about it and doesn’t want to compete. Moocher just wants to marry his girlfriend, and Cyril (Stern) just wants to practice his stuttered way of talking he later perfected in Wonder Years monologues. Dave eventually gets involved in some Italian bike race sponsored by some ominous Italian corporation. He does really well and catches up to the lead Italian team. They sabotage him and when he arrives home defeated, he no longer speaks Italian all the time and instead cries a bunch. I guess now that his Italiano heroes have smote him, he has a renewed motivation to prove himself. Unfortunately, Moocher has gotten married, Mike has grown bitter, and Cyril is busy recording voiceovers for Wonder Years. Even the college girl Dave tried to woo with his shitty Italian accent is splitting town.
At this point Paul Dooley delivers an important monologue to his son about making change in your own life despite the outcome and trying your hardest no matter what.
This sort of provides a transition into the ‘big showdown” segment of the film. The race is fairly standard with “The Cutters” representing the underdogs. The “Little 500” race consists of a team of four taking turns riding a bike for 200 laps. The plan for the team is to have Dave run the entire race. This goes well until about 1/3 of the way in when, after taking the lead, Dave is again sabotaged. Mike, Cyril, and Moocher try to take over for the injured rider. They of course totally aren’t fucking prepared and race like shit. Dave becomes so angered his wounded leg no longer hurt and he is able to take over and win the race. The crowd cheers. The college jocks pout, but are then won over by their opponents’ tenacity.
Breaking Away is the model that a lot of those triumphant “friends winning contests” movies of the 80s were based on. Films like Breakin’, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogalo, and I don’t know, all those fucking movies where a group of friends band together and win some type of sports or dance competition. There were like a million of them. They were all slightly substandard compared to a movie like Breaking Away, which had a bit more sincere ambitions than just making audiences feel empowered. Expertly directed by Peter Yates (Bullitt, The Deep, Krull), it doesn’t have the feel of a slapped-together coming-of-age story. Although ultimately it leads to a predictable ending, the road that gets us there is genuinely sincere.
Poster and Box Art The theatrical poster for this movie is incredible. It features a posterized image with great type work. The word “Breaking” is split into two lines, which was an awesomely confusing visual then as it still is today. The image on the poster shows our core group of friends just lounging around, really conveying the sense of drifting that each feels post-high school. A more conventional US poster was also released:
This one was designed to target a more family-oriented audience because it has no artistic integrity or subtle message, at all. It just shows dudes smiling with helmets on. The European poster:
Attempts to bridge the gap between the two posters and goes so far as to include a drawing of the girl Dave tried to woo with his shitty Italian accent. As a testament to how popular Breaking Away was, I found posters for almost every major European Country:
This Belgian version kind of makes no sense, but if they wanted to showcase teenage boys’ legs and crotches, then that’s their prerogative. It certainly is an interesting poster, and I guess the legs relate to the bicycle race? I’m hoping at least.
The German poster is actually fucking nice. Again though, like the European version, it attempts to showcase the lame subplot about Dave and the college girl. This subplot was so minimal it hardly even was mentioned in my plot description. In fact, I don’t even think they kiss. Good illustration though.
Availability: There is a shitty bargain bin DVD version of this, but I hear tell it’s full screen, and has a shitty muddy audio track. It’s also worth mentioning that Breaking Away was adapted into a sitcom that lasted for 8 episodes. That show seems pretty unavailable.