Breaking Away (1979)

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.

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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.

This post is part of the Athletes in Film Blogathon hosted by Rich of Wide Screen World and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen. Check out more great movies covered on Day 1  and Day 2.

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16 thoughts on “Breaking Away (1979)”

  1. Naturally, I’m glad somebody chose to write about a biking movie This is one I’ve never seen, but I’ve always heard good things about it. Didn’t know Jackie Earl Haley was in it.

    1. I fell in love with this movie right away, heartfelt underdog movie that makes the predictable victory uncertain and really satisfying.Take a look, I bet you’ll enjoy it.

  2. “Breaking Away” came out at a time when this movie fan was starting (already) to feel jaded about the Oscars, but their awarding Steve Tesich the statue for this film made me think there was some hope for the organization.

    1. It’s such a wonderful script, with so many likable characters and lots of suspense about their lives, decisions, and the race outcome.

  3. Cutters!! Refund? I agree, such a classic film and one of my favorite endings in sports films. The Cutters are terrific outcasts and embody the class differences found in growing towns. Love this film!

    1. Great movie and such a great example of how you can make a predictable, almost formula plot into something so creative, memorable and lasting with a rich setting and characters, and a lot of heart. Loved discovering this! Thanks

  4. So glad you enjoyed it. I haven’t seen it in a while, but my first year at Indiana U as a grad student they screened it for free in a student auditorium to open the new academic year. As far as I know that tradition continues.

    1. That’s neat! I really did enjoy, had heard about for a long time. Goes to show we’re never done discovering great movies and finding new faves. Thanks!

  5. What a great cast in this film! Predictably, I’ve never heard of it before, but I need to track it down. It sounds like a feel-good movie that needs to be seen occasionally.

    1. Very much a feel-good movie! It’s great to see some of those actors so young, and I guarantee you’ll never forget the REFUND?! bit 🙂 Check it out.

  6. Gosh, was this as late as 1979?! I remember going to see it in the theater with my friend and his dad, and I thought we were younger than we would have been in ’79. Maybe it was before my birthday. Anyway, we were both underachievers, so even as children we identified with the characters. Oddly the other thing I remember is that there was an unusually long reel-change (maybe five whole seconds or something) during which I thought the movie was over already.

    1. That’s funny. Those characters are easy to relate to, also the blue-collar/trades parents ring true too, all so nicely written, fun and memorable.

  7. I love this movie too.My husband is into biking, so I bought him the movie and a Cutters t-shirt for a birthday one year. It always weirds me out to see it in stills from the movie now that I associate the shirt with him!

    1. That’s fun, Cutters forever. Simple word to use, but it’s just a NICE movie, fun, nostalgic, warm, all that good stuff. Glad I finally discovered it.

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