#26 Breaking Away
(1979, Peter Yates)
“I thought that was the whole plan. I thought that we were going to waste the rest of our lives together”
It’s summer, and a group of high school leavers are contemplating their futures. It’s a common scenario, one that many of us would have experienced at some point in our lives. Breaking Away is a film that takes a light-hearted look at this immense period of change and how it can end up shaping the rest of our lives.
The movie focuses on Dave (Dennis Christopher), a teenage cycling enthusiast fresh out of school. He’s obsessed with Italy and would love nothing more than to join one of the major Italian cycling teams. When not cycling, he wastes his time down at the local quarry, now flooded and used as a swimming hole, with his friends Mike (Dennis Quaid), Cyril (Daniel Stern) and Mooch (Jackie Earle Haley). The four of them want to stick together and hang out the way they’ve always done, but adult life is steadily creeping up on them.
The first thing that’s noticeable about Breaking Away is the fact that the story is a little disjointed; it kind of leaps around and things don’t happen in very rigid, filmic ways. However, this disjointed feel is oddly part of the film’s charm. It makes it feel like we’re looking into a real slice of life. While I did notice this odd leaping around quite often, not once did it bother me.
It’s possibly because the characters are so well written and so wonderfully performed. The dialogue feels realistic, with characters expressing their feelings in a very human, very non-saccharine way, and the humour is light, but effective. Gags don’t feel like they’re there because it’s time for a comedy moment, they’re there because the characters feel like joking around. It’s what makes the group of friends so identifiable. Each has their own aspirations and personalities, but not one of them feels like a fictional template.
Best of all is Dave’s father, a crotchety old-fashioned working class man who moans constantly about his son’s Italian obsession and refusal to knuckle down and get a job. He’s a wonderful comic character for much of the movie, but is also realistically portrayed in his comedy, never once going over the top. He’s also balanced with a few moments that demonstrate his genuine love for his son despite his complaints, but they are done in a way that perfectly fits his rigid old moaning persona.
Due to the way the plot is structured, there are a few issues with the plot as a whole. The end of the film does leave a great sense of “where do they go from here?” especially since it’s unclear as to whether or not the group will stick together or go their separate ways to pursue their own goals. While this is forgivable, keeping with the “slice of life” feel and allowing the viewer to make their own interpretations, what is less forgivable is the love story side-plot.
For a good portion of the film, Dave pursues a university student named Cathy by pretending to be an Italian foreign student, and so much of the film questions when Dave will inevitably be found out, and what will happen, but this is poorly resolved. This time, however, the slice of life doesn’t save the lack of real closure. The film sets itself up to reveal an ending to that thread at least, then leaves an ambiguous ending that hangs in the air rather uncomfortably, particularly when the end of the film rolls around.
The climactic race also suffers from issues. It’s clear how it will end, because films that end with a big sporting event always end the way you expect. However, the actual race scenes are well shot, and even with the predictability, they still feel quite tense. Even though my inner cynic was already repeating the inevitable ending over and over, I was sitting there going “GO ON DAVE! YOU CAN DO IT!” which says something, especially as I don’t even do that with real sporting events.
Overall though, Breaking Away is a quaint little film that doesn’t try too hard to impress, just gives us a light-hearted look into a section of working class America and the perils of trying to find your place in life. It’s possibly not for everyone, but I enjoyed it.
Starring Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Jackie Earle Haley, Paul Dooley, Barbara Barrie & Robyn Douglass
Written by Steve Tesich
Produced by Peter Yates
Cinematography by Matthew F. Leonetti
Edited by Cynthia Scheider
Favourite Scene: Dave and his father walk through the grounds of the university and have a heartfelt conversation about life and the society of their town. It expands the father’s character and warms us a little more to Dave at the same time.
Scene That Bugged Me: Cathy appears to Dave following his revelation that he’s not really Italian, and seems to forgive him, but it’s ambiguous, almost obtusely so.
Watch it if: You want to relive the post-high school summer between adolescence and adulthood
Avoid it if: You’re more a fan of motorbikes.
Originally posted on Blogspot Monday 12 December 2011