Directed By: Peter Yates
Written By: Steve Tesich
Starring: Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Jackie Earle Haley, Paul Dooley
Between Lucas’s American Graffiti and Levinson’s Diner, Peter Yates made his own unique coming-of-age comedy/drama, one which marched to its own drum beat. He made a film which departed from the vignette story structure of like-minded films in order to parlay its episodes of youth into a sports drama with an intense affect that creeps up on you. The film is called Breaking Away, a luminous and perceptive gemstone of a movie which pulls the neat trick of being simple without being simplistic. Like the best films of Spielberg, which translate the vastest of thematic terrains (the morality of war, the nature of communication) into accessible human tales, together Yates and screenwriter Steve Tesich are able to distil the existential woes of post-teen/pre-adult life, into everyday events like swimming in a quarry and riding a bike.
It’s of little surprise to learn that Tesich’s screenplay is largely autobiographical; for all of its larger than life personality, sharp humour and thrilling climactic moments, Breaking Away unravels with the naturalism of a Robert Altman or Francois Truffaut movie. The story centres on four friends caught in the no-mans-land between high school and college. They are Dave (Dennis Christopher,) Mike (Dennis Quaid,) Cyril (Daniel Stern,) and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley.) They live in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana, where they are ostracised for their “cutter” background by the privileged students who dominate the community. The boys each descend from labourers of the limestone industry, the stonecutters who built the quarries and college but who themselves never gained a greater education. The blue collar “cutter” culture is embodied by Dave’s grizzly father Ray (wonderfully played by Paul Dooley, who allows his parental warmth to slowly creep through his weary, jaded veneer,) who resents his son’s freewheeling attitude towards life. Dave should be down-and-dirty and depressed, slaving away for minimum wage to round out his teenage years. Instead Dave devotes his time to riding his bicycle, shaving his legs, and listening to opera. You see, Dave is obsessed with Italian cyclists, and has taken to his fandom with a method actor’s edge, even adopting a full time Italian accent.
Mike is the fieriest of the central quartet. He’s cynical and angry, mourning his lost opportunity at football stardom and sensing that life has already passed him by before he’s made it out of his teens.
Cyril sees himself as a perennial failure, his father all too attuned to his shortcomings. He’s without aspiration; “you know what I’d like to be?” he asks his friends one lazy afternoon. “A cartoon of some kind.” He too thinks he might have amounted to something more by this stage, there is obviously a cleverness there to be tapped into.
Moocher is distinguished by his size, a pocket rocket type. “How come your so damned small?” Dave’s dad asks him.
“I eat three times a day and my metabolism eats five.” Moocher seems readiest to enter the workforce, but just when his foot is in the door, he’s roped back into the aimlessness of screwing around with his friends.
For me, Breaking Away is about reconciling two poles of identity; about four young men, obviously longing to join those college kids and graft new paths for themselves, who are never able to pull the trigger because “cutters” simply don’t have a place in a lecture theatre. It’s about championing who you are and where you come from, whilst having the courage to depart from that history and become your own person.
Dave, for instance, resorts to crafting an entirely new personality for himself, an Italian, bike riding alter-ego, as a contrived means of shedding his “cutter” image. He is rewriting his personal history, as though acknowledging his father’s blue-collar existence is to consign himself to the same life.
The error of Dave’s ways is he feels embracing his “cutter” history is the same as surrendering himself to it.
The film’s final sequence, the Little 500 bike race hosted by the college, serves as the ultimate metaphor for this reconciliation of identity. The four boys enter it, “cutter” proudly displayed on their team’s outfit, as they engage with the college world for the first time uninhibited. It’s a sequence of great pathos and excitement, not unlike the climactic showdown between Balboa and Creed; earnestly sentimental and exhilarating by equal measure as our underdog heroes mix it up with those appear to be their natural superiors.
But Breaking Away could be read in a number of ways; it could be seen as a document of clinging to one’s dreams in the face of disenchantment, of finding confidence and self-worth, an examination of the liberations offered by youth. Tesich observes and understands the reality of his characters so fully that the film’s layering is infinite, and Yates records it all with an amalgamation of humour that is distinctly cinematic in its screwiness, and a realism which permits the film a heightened accessibility.
But perhaps the salient observation is just how endearing Breaking Away is, as insightful as it is fun.