Thursday, May 16, 2024

Breaking Away: A Review


It is a curious thing that despite receiving five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and winning for its screenplay, Breaking Away is not as well-known today. That seems a terrible shame, for Breaking Away is a beautiful film that celebrates the underdog and will have you cheering on our characters despite yourself.

In Bloomington, Indiana, nineteen-year-old Dave Stohler (Dennis Christopher) has become thoroughly obsessed with cycling, particularly Italian cycling. He has convinced himself to become Italian: learning the language, singing opera, even shaving his legs. This drives his father Ray (Paul Dooley) thoroughly bonkers while his mother Evelyn (Barbara Barrie) is quietly more tolerant, if perhaps puzzled, by Dave's Italian fixation.

Dave has cycling as his passion; his close friends, however, have nothing to really look forward to. They are not eager for jobs, if any are to be found. They also have resentment against the affluent college students at Indiana University, who dismiss them all as "cutters" (referring to the quarries where their families would have worked). The unofficial leader of these cutters, Mike (Dennis Quaid) has a perennial chip on his shoulder. The more casual Cyril (Daniel Stern) really has nothing in terms of prospects or family. Mooch (Jackie Earle Haley) is the smallest of the group who is quickly angered when called Shorty.

Dave is thrilled when he learns the Italian Cinzano group will be racing near them, seeing it as a chance to compete with and against his idols. He also, adopting an Italian identity of "Enrico Gimondi" starts romancing pretty I.U. sorority girl Katherine (Robyn Douglass). Whether he is deliberately faking his Italian identity or genuinely believes it is an open question given his Italian fixation. 

Things don't go as Dave wants when he races against Cinzano. Devastated, he returns to his American nature and is in danger of drifting towards a cutter destiny. He has one potential spark for life: the Little 500 bicycle race. Will his generally unapproving but still loving father guide Dave back to finding that he can rise above his own lowered expectations? Will the four Cutters be able to take on and take down the snobbish Sigma Tau Omega fraternity? Is there hope in bloom for our Bloomington Four?

What Breaking Away has is something similar to what made two other sports films, Rocky and Hoosiers, exceptional and beloved. Peter Yates' Oscar-winning screenplay (which he also directed) does not focus on the big competition itself. Instead, like with Rocky and Hoosiers, it focuses on the characters, these flawed but relatable and mostly likeable characters whom you end up rooting for. This is for all the characters, not just the four friends. Katherine, for example, is not a dumb bimbo or snob but a genuinely nice girl who is understandably upset when she learns "Enrico Gimondi" is anything but. Dave's parents too are neither brutal nor saintly. They are instead average parents who want to be supportive but are also exasperated by what they see. 

As we get to know them, we get to understand them and more importantly, care for and about them. It is a credit to Yates' directing and screenplay that we look at some of their questionable actions and in Dave's case at-times bizarre behavior as more endearing than dangerous. The film takes its time to build up these characters, so by the time the big race comes, we want them to have that moment of triumph.

I will not lie: by the time the race reached its climax, I was at the edge of my seat. I was cheering them on to win. Once the race was over, I pumped my fists in the air and even had a small tear or two. It is because everyone in Breaking Away is again likeable and/or relatable. One understands how these young men could see themselves as somehow inferior, especially compared to the preppies at Indiana University. 

Breaking Away also manages to balance nicely comedy and drama. Most of that is with the Stohler family. Brilliantly played by Paul Dooley, Breaking Away shows Ray as cantankerous but never truly harsh. Forever bemoaning his forced diet, he rails against both his healthy food and Dave's Italian cuisine. Criticizing the various "inis" Evelyn makes (zucchini, linguine, fettucine), he ends by barking, "I want some American food, damn it! I want French fries!". Dooley's delivery is perfect: a blend of frustration and quiet resignation. You can see, however, in Dooley's performance the genuinely loving father Ray is. As he walks with Evelyn one night, you get hints through Ray's words that he does not want his son to be a used car salesman and wants better for Dave. Later on, Ray takes Dave to a walk at the University, where he tells him of the pride that he felt in making the limestones that were used to build the University but still feels out of place there.

Again, it is subtle, but one can read between the lines that Ray loves Dave, even with all of his son's eccentricities. The final shot involving Ray ends Breaking Away in a delightful and amusing manner. 

It is surprising that Dooley was not nominated for his performance and Barbara Barrie was. It is not to say that she did not deserve one as the tolerant mother who finds Dave's dolce vita aspirations secretly joyful. There is a wonderful moment when she shows Dave, who at this time has lost that Italian spark, her passport. She tells him she carries it with her all the time, with the hope to show it as proof of her identity to any new A&P checkout girl who asks for identification. Yet again, the suggestion is subtle but clear: she supports her son moving forward. We do see again subtlety in the film about her character: she is seen in bed reading Valley of the Dolls. Make of that what you will.

Even Katherine, who at the end reconciles with Dave (though not romantically) gives him encouragement.

She tells him that she is going to Italy with her parents in the summer, no doubt inspired by "Enrico". Katherine adds that he might go too. "I'm not going anywhere," he sheepishly tells her. She looks at him and replies, "I don't know about that". It is clear there's a double meaning, but it is so well done. 

Breaking Away also has four standout performances by the four Cutters. Christopher is charming and winning as Dave, a young man so immersed in his dream that it is genuinely unclear if he just wants to be Italian or really thinks he is. He puts great charm and humor when serenading Katherine with opera (albeit not with the best voice). You like him, feel for him, root for him. 

Quaid and Stern got big boosts out of Breaking Away as the tough but vulnerable Mike and quietly lonely Cyril. Quaid has something of a monologue as they look down on the I.U. football practice, aware that he too had football skills but was destined to be anywhere but on the gridiron. In his hostility to the world which masked a fear of it, she showcases a charm and sincerity that wins you to want his success. Stern's final scene, where there is no one to share his success with, is comically moving. Haley is the only one with something of a subplot: a romance with an A&P cashier. While not a major plot point in Breaking Away, we do see how Mooch is how he is: a fighter who won't be kept down by others, though perhaps by himself. 

Breaking Away, while not as well-known or remembered as I think it is or should be, is a treasure. It ranked eighth in two American Film Institute's Best List: Best Sports Film and Most Inspirational Film. Putting this small film with such established classics as the aforementioned Rocky and Hoosiers shows that Breaking Away is, like the Cutters cycling team, going the distance and making the most of its chance. Breaking Away will win you over with its mix of heart and humor, a delight and a film that will indeed have you cheering. 


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