Breaking Away (1979)

Directed by Peter Yates


A little while ago I did a quick search for movies set in a small town.  This was after watching Columbus and feeling suddenly nostalgic for childhood summers spent in Iowa, and an enjoyable rewatch of Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me.  This feeling of nostalgia, I think, is tied more to movies and television than it is to my actual experience.  It’s some sort of yearning for a life I never lived, both because of my upbringing in California and because of things like Gameboy, pokemon, suburban sprawl, adult supervision and the like.

The lives lived by the Stand By Me kids or the Breaking Away teenagers might as well be stories of cowboys in the old west.  That type of living is just as far away from my own experience, and watching these types of films I imagine myself as Luke Skywalker dreamily looking out at the two moons on his home planet.  Just as he longs to become a Jedi, I long to be a kid, riding my bike down forrested roads outside of small towns in which everyone knows each other.


At the same time, I might go crazy living in such a place.  It’s more imaginary than real, at least to me, and the funny thing is that these small-town stories often address the need to get out or the inevitability of leaving this way of life behind.  In other words these stories are as much about this moment in life as much as it is about the world around the protagonists.  And maybe that’s why it all feels so dreamy, because on some level the environment of the story is a manifestation of the warm feelings of nostalgia the audience is meant to feel.

In Stand By Me, based on a Stephen King novella, the protagonist (the King surrogate) reminisces about the events of the story.  The nostalgia is baked into the pie, so to speak, and though Breaking Away doesn’t deal with this omniscient future perspective, it is just as much about where we’re headed as much as anything else.  Sure, there’s a cycling race, a story about privilege versus poverty and a character obsessed with Italian culture, but beyond all the quirks it’s still just a story about youth.

The love triangles and uber-competitiveness of movies like this speak to a deeper restlessness of people at a certain time in their lives.  The group of friends at the heart of Breaking Away are “cutters,” essentially just kids from poor or middle class backgrounds who hang in the shadow of a University they will never afford to attend.  While they express distaste for the wealthy college kids, they mostly waste away each day at a quarry or in the streets of a small downtown where they scoff at the idea of getting jobs.  Though they’re bonded by a similar upbringing, their plan (or lack thereof) for the future has nothing to do with the ostensible antagonists of the movie.

The third act of the movie deals with a local cycling race as the cutters, the lovable underdogs, attempt to beat the spoiled rich kids.  It’s a scenario far overused in movies like these, but it’s filled with a certain amount of heart because of what came before.  We get to know these kids and their way of life, and this slice of life nature makes a poem out of their existence.  The race at the end of the film has less to do with the outcome (though it certainly matters) and more to do with being a celebration of this crazy, youthful energy.  The competition brings out the best in everyone, even the rich, spoiled antagonist who becomes respectful in defeat.

“I thought that was the whole plan, that we were going to waste the rest of our lives away together.”

Dave, Mike, Cyril and Moocher waste away the long summer days with a little angst but more contemplation.  Dave (Dennis Christopher) is the talented cyclist whose fascination with Italian culture (“Ciao Papa!”) irritates his straight-laced car salesman of a father and who develops an infatuation with the girlfriend of one of the spoiled rich kids who believes him to be an Italian transfer student.  While his sense of Italian culture is presented as a continuous joke, it does say something about him denying his own background, at least on some level.  Is he embarrassed about being a “cutter?”  Probably.

Dave’s father wonders when his day-dreaming son will get a real job, and he rolls his eyes at everything his eccentric son does.  Among his friends, Mike (Dennis Quaid) is the most rowdy.  He represents a certain amount of angst and anger.  He hates the college kids and dwells on what he could have been (a college quarterback). He’s a young, handsome and strapping man but who looks at the world like he’s already well-past middle age.  He has a sense of how things will pass him by, even if the entire world should still be in front of him.

Cyril (Daniel Stern) is the other thief from Home Alone, and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) is Mooch.  They have less to do, though there’s a scene in which Moocher gets a job and then promptly quits while the other friends cheer him on.

Most of the film sits with these friends as they wander around town, get into kerfuffles with the college kids and swim at the quarry.  The college kids are always nearby, eventually taking up space at their quarry, and when Mike has had enough he decides to get into a fight… except his version of a fight is a swim race.

Everything is so playful in this movie.  Now that I think about it, the swimming and the cycling are basically stand ins for scenes of more conventional physical violence.  It’s all so silly, but I think most of us, particularly young boys, have that competitive streak at a point in life.  Challenging someone to a race might as well be a fight because the goal is the same, to win.

Breaking Away is a fun hangout movie, if only because I think most of us will think of a certain point in our own lives that relates to this one.  It might be when you were in college or when you were eight, but a movie like this will strike a cord with most of its audience.

Up Next: Images (1972), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Coco (2017)

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