Nominated for five Academy Awards, Breaking Away wasn't the best movie to be released in 1979 (Apocalypse Now! was) but it's a far sight better than the movie that walked away with the Oscar that night—Kramer vs. Kramer. Writer Steven Tesich did walk away with a well deserved statuette for Peter Yates' relatively small budgeted project, for the writing highlights one of film's strengths. Not so much for the overall structure, but the details and humor remain fresh and very real, holding up over twenty years later.
Thematically, Breaking Away sounds very much like other "coming of age" feel good dramas that has a climatic contest to set the audience cheering and drying their eyes by the end. Touches of social drama in middle America are present, as there evolves a class struggle between the "haves" (college students) and the "have nots" (the local hicks), specifically represented in Yates location film in Bloomington, Indiana—most famous for Indiana University, which at the time had an outstanding swim team along with its well-known basketball team. According to the story, the area was once rich with rock quarries, giving the locals the nickname of "cutters."
Four 19-year-old friends, open the film at one of the quarry swimming holes, wondering what to do with their lives now that they are out of high school. All of them have dreams, but whether they are fantasies or attainable becomes the crux of the story. Mike (Dennis Quaid) was the star quarterback and wants to head to Marlboro country, Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) has his eye on Nancy and doesn�t like being called "shorty," and Cyril (Daniel Stern) would like to succeed at something without his understanding father sympathizing at another failure.
Dave (Dennis Christopher) quickly establishes himself as the main character. He dreams of bicycle racing with the best, and keeps the hopes of his friends alive with his dedicated training, racing competitively, and winning trophies. Dave idolizes the Italian racers so much that becomes obsessed with all things Italian—he posters his room with Italian maps and pictures, studies the language, plays opera records (singing along with them), renames the family cat Fellini, and acts Italian. An elderly neighbor remarks, "he used to be normal as pumpkin pie, and now look at him!"
Living in his Italian dream world, Dave not only lends hope to his buddies, but inspires a college coed, typically estranged from her family, and touches his mother's heart. A nice scene has her recalling a dream of hers about travelling to Europe with her passport in hand. For this, and for her sensitive and supportive portrayal Barbara Barrie received an Oscar nomination for supporting actress.
Some nifty editing occurs during another of her key scenes, as the film juxtaposes Dave serenading college coed Kathy in Italian while his parents simultaneously listen to the same Friedrich von Flotow opera during a candlelit home dinner. The rhythm and timing of the scene and the cuts is impeccable, as is the contrast between the sincere youthful Dave attempting to woo his love and the more mature loving gaze of his parents for each other.
The real acting gem is pulled off by under-rated Paul Dooley as the father. He gets the funniest lines, often referring to his frustrated role as the father to a confused "bum" who's been taking off the year to find himself, or his irritation at Italian references taking over his household—"I know I-tey food when I hear it! It's all them 'eenie' foods... zucchini... and linguini... and fettuccine. I want some American food, dammit! I want French fries!"
Yet there's a heart beneath the cynicism. He realizes that his days of being a "cutter" are long past and the only thing he has to pass on to his son in that vein are the swimming holes left in the ground. One of the better scenes takes place one evening on the Indiana campus during a father-son talk, that is naturally awkward. Dave expresses negative thoughts about moving on to college without his buddies and his fears, and his dad does what he can to encourage him. Like many parents, he wants his son to go beyond what he did:
" I was proud of my work. And the buildings went up. When they were finished the damnedest thing happened. It was like the buildings were too good for us. Nobody told us that. It just felt uncomfortable, that's all."
Of course the storyline is a real crowd-pleaser and delivers dramatically the predictable outcome. Where the charm of this film really lies comes from the intelligent script and the respect that the screenplay gives each character. Even the supporting characters and bit players are given some depth and feel like real people as the movie progresses in true down-home Midwestern style.
Calling Breaking Away a "feel good" movie is far too limiting because the good humored character-driven story provides freshness, yet hits upon archetypes that allow the film to remain relatable. As Mike muses about the cycle of life at the university—no matter how old and mean he gets, the college students will continue to come and remain young. The film does its best to remove any natural crusty cynicism and reach into your heart without the manipulative tactics of the Oscar winner of that year.