I watched Breaking Away (1979) for the first time just a few months ago and already count it as one of my favourite movie discoveries of this or any year. It’s a smart, touching and joyful coming-of-age story set in the summer after four buddies finish high school and increasingly feel like outsiders in a community that revolves around its college and high achievers. They face the pressures and compromises of adulthood and the inevitable drift apart from each other, dread having to adapt or abandon their ambitions, and fear that life will pass them by as they watch the privileged students come and go. But they’ll get one last, big chance to settle rivalries, come to terms with their changing roles and find out what they’re made of, thanks to a bicycle race.
Competing is easy for Dave (Dennis Christopher), the aspiring cyclist and wannabe Italian. It’s a huge challenge for defiant, insecure football star Mike (Dennis Quaid), short, defensive, romantic Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley), and wise-cracking Cyril (Daniel Stern), but what they lack in experience they can make up with loyalty and gumption. They come up with a great plan to show up the college snobs and win the race, but before the satisfyingly predictable ending there are plenty of unexpected setbacks and really tough lessons about idols, cheaters, brats and love. I really enjoy this movie’s balance of exhilarating action, as seen in Dave’s highway race with a big rig, against the sweet and sour personal moments that raise the stakes in the “cutters” vs. preppies battle.
Coming of age wouldn’t be as meaningful without the picture of adulthood we get from Dave’e parents, played so well by Barbara Barrie and Paul Dooley. Dad’s infuriated and Mom’s amused by their son’s Italophilia and bike obsession, but for all their eye-rolling and ranting, they’re a strong and loving couple who come through when Dave’s devastated and needs sensitivity and support most. Dooley’s screams of “REFUND?!” after a failed attempt to teach his son the secrets of used car sales, are unforgettably funny, but just as memorable is his advice about getting an education, and his pride at the unappreciated blue-collar work that went into building the college.
Thanks to director Peter Yates and writer Steve Tesich, most every character is likable and authentic, given room to fail and grow and reveal hidden depths, concerns and talents. The Cutters may feel like outclassed misfits but they hold on to their dignity and optimism, and refuse to be losers in the big bike race or anywhere else.