Breaking Away Movie Essay Citation

"Breaking Away" is a wonderfully sunny, funny, goofy, intelligent movie that makes you feel about as good as any movie in a long time. It is, in fact, a treasure -- which is why it's in half as many theaters as trash like "Bloodline." Exhibitors are scared to death of offbeat, original movies; they'll play it safe with sleaze every time. But audiences are discovering "Breaking Away" (the studio has been sneak-previewing it for months), and they love it.

No wonder. In a summer of big-budget movies that are insults to the intelligence, here's a little film about coming of age in Bloomington, Ind. It's about four local kids, just out of high school, who mess around for one final summer before facing the inexorable choices of jobs or college or the Army. One of the kids, Dave (Dennis Christopher), has it in his head that he wants to be a champion Italian bicycle racer, and he drives his father crazy with opera records and ersatz Italian.


His friends have more reasonable ambitions: One (Dennis Quaid) was a high school football star who pretends he doesn't want to play college ball, but he does; another (Jackie Earle Haley) is a short kid who pretends he doesn't want to be taller, but he does; and another (Daniel Stern) is one of those kids like we all knew, who learned how to talk by crossing Eric Severaid with Woody Allen.

There's the usual town-and-gown tension in Bloomington, between the jocks and the townies (who are known, in Bloomington, as "cutters" -- so called after the workers in the area's limestone quarries). There's also a poignant kind of tension between local guys and college girls: Will a sorority girl be seen with a cutter? Dave finds out by falling hopelessly in love with a college girl named Kathy (Robyn Douglass), and somehow, insanely, convincing her he's actually an Italian exchange student.

The whole business of Dave's Italomania provides the movie's funniest running joke: Dave's father (Paul Dooley) rants and raves that he didn't raise his boy to be an Eye-talian, and that he's sick and tired of all the ee-neesin the house: linguini, fettucini . . . even Jake, the dog, which Dave has renamed Fellini. The performances by Dooley and Barbara Barrie as Dave's parents are so loving and funny at the same time that we remember, almost with a shock, that every movie doesn't have to have parents and kids who don't get along.

The movie was directed as a work of love by Peter Yates, whose big commercial hits have included "Bullitt" and "The Deep." It was written by Steve Tesich, who was born in Yugoslavia, was moved to Bloomington at the age of 13, won the Little 500 bicycle race there in 1962, and uses it for the film's climax. Yates has gone for the human elements in "Breaking Away," but he hasn't forgotten how to direct action, and there's a bravura sequence in which Dave, on a racing bicycle, engages in a high-speed highway duel with a semitrailer truck.


In this scene, and in scenes involving swimming in an abandoned quarry, Yates' does a tricky and intriguing thing: He suggests the constant possibility of sudden tragedy. We wait for a terrible accident to happen, and none does, but the hints of one make the characters seem curiously vulnerable, and their lives more precious.

The whole movie, indeed, is a delicate balancing act of its various tones: This movie could have been impossible to direct, but Yates has us on his side almost immediately. Some scenes edge into fantasy, others are straightforward character development, some (like the high school quarterback's monolog about his probable future) are heartbreakingly true. But the movie always returns to light comedy, to romance; to a wonderfully evocative instant nostalgia.

"Breaking Away" is a movie to embrace. It's about people who are complicated but decent, who are optimists but see things realistically, who are fundamentally comic characters but have three full dimensions. It's about a Middle America we rarely see in the movies, yes, but it's not corny and it doesn't condescend. Movies like this are hardly ever made at all; when they're made this well, they're precious cinematic miracles.

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  • Berserk Button: Do not, under any circumstances, make fun of Moocher's height. Especially don't call him "Shorty".
    • Don't invade Mike's swimming hole.
    • Don't serve Ray any "ini" food. And above all, don't tell him he should give a refund for a bad car (REFUND?!?).
  • Big-Lipped Alligator Moment: In-universe:

    {Ray storms into Dave's bedroom to get him to turn off the music, comes back looking dazed)

    Ray: He's shaving.

    Evelyn: So?

    Ray: His legs. He's shaving his legs!note  Useful Notes: Serious bicycle racers often do shave their legs.

  • The Big Race: Both the race Dave has with the Italian team, and the Little 500 race at the end.
  • Break the Cutie: What happens to Dave at his race with the Italian team; they cheat by crippling his bike and causing him to crash.
  • Broken Pedestal: The Italians. Dave worshipped them and they deliberately wrecked him in a manner that could've killed him for no reason other than being able to keep up with them.
  • Bumbling Dad: Ray Stohler. He's a xenophobic used car salesman whose main wish is for his son to act like a normal American boy, damnit.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Everyone thinks Dave has become this, but he really isn't; he's more of a Bunny-Ears Lawyer.

    Neighbor: He used to be as normal as pumpkin pie. Now look at him. His poor parents.

    • Cyril has shades of this as well.
  • Coming-of-Age Story: For Dave.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Mike and Cyril both exhibit this, as does Evelyn.
  • Death Glare: After the Cutters and college kids have a fight, the college kids are chewed out by the university president, who tells them if they want to compete against the Cutters, they can do so at the Little 500 race. When Rod protests the Cutters aren't good enough, Mike's cop brother fixes him with a death glare.
    • Must be genetic; Mike gives one of these when he first sees the college kids at his swimming hole.
  • Determinator: Dave doesn't let any injury stop him from competing in the race. He even has his friends tape his feet onto the pedals so he can't fall!
  • Double-Meaning Title: Breaking Away is a bicycling term. But it also applies to the four guys trying to decide what to do with their lives.
  • Exact Words: "Don't forget to punch the clock, shorty."
  • Fauxreigner: As mentioned above, Dave pretends he's an Italian exchange student named Enrico when he first meets Katherine, and he either speaks Italian or English in an Italian accent.
    • At the very end of the film, Dave — now enrolled at IU — meets a pretty French exchange student, and, well...
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble:
    • Dave: Sanguine
    • Mike: Choleric
    • Mooch: Melancholic
    • Cyril: Phlegmatic
  • Gratuitous Italian: Dave, though again, it's justified, as he's been obsessed with Italy ever since he won an Italian racing bike.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Mike definitely feels jealous of the college kids.
  • Height Angst: Moocher suffers from this.
  • Hypocritical Humor:

    Ray: He used to be a smart kid. I thought he was going to college.

    Evelyn: You said you didn't want him to go to college.

    Ray: Well, why should he go to college?

  • I Have No Son: A rather funny version of this trope; Dave helps his father out at his car lot, and when a customer tries to return a car that doesn't work, and Ray won't take it back, Dave suggests maybe they should. Ray says to Dave, "Who are you?"
    • Earlier in the movie, Ray is trying to sell a car to a customer when Dave rides by and shouts a greeting to Ray. Ray turns to the customer and says, "Friend of yours?"
  • Improvised Weapon: Cyril's bowling ball.
  • Insult Backfire:

    Mike: (referring to the college kids) They're gonna keep calling us "cutters". To them, it's just a dirty word. To me, it's just something else I never got a chance to be.

  • Jerk Jock: Rod.
    • Played With. Rod Meets Every Jerk Jock Stereotype. However When he sees that Mike is clearly Seriously Hurt In Their race he shows obvious concern and seems ready to rescue him until his friends do. Once its clear Mike is safe he quietly leaves allowing Mike some dignity. Then he proved to be a gracious loser at the end of the Little 500.
    • The Italians on the other hand weren't only jerks, they were nearly murderers.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Ray is obviously very gruff with Dave and Evelyn, but he does love them both, and even shows it in unexpected ways.
  • Meet Cute: While studying Italian outside the campus, Dave notices Katherine. She rides off in her motor scooter, but one of her notebooks falls off. Dave gets on his bike, rides over, picks up the notebook, and chases her down on his bike while she's riding the scooter. She's very impressed.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: In lieu of an original score, the soundtrack features classical pieces from Rossini, Mendelssohn, and von Flotow.
  • Serenade Your Lover: Dave, as Enrico, sings an excerpt from the opera "Martha" outside of Katherine's sorority building. She's visibly touched.
  • Sexless Marriage: Averted. We see Ray and Evelyn having a romantic evening, and while we don't see it, it's implied they have sex. And then near the end of the film, we find out that will lead to Babies Ever After.

    Moocher:Wow. Hey, I didn't think people your age...

    Ray: Uh, the next word may be your last, kid.

  • Shout-Out: Dave tries to rename their cat (named Jake) Fellini.
  • Slobs vs. Snobs: The tension between the "cutters" and the IU students has elements of this.
  • Smoking Is Cool: Discussed and subverted. Mike carries a cigarette around with him, but can't bring himself to light it even though he thinks smoking is cool (his hero is the Marlboro Man) because he still thinks he needs to train to play quarterback again. Also, Dave tries to light Katherine's cigarette for her, but the lighter goes out of control, much to her bemusement.

    Dave: (pretending to be Enrico) You shouldn't smoke.

  • Smug Snake: Rod.
    • Somewhat averted as well in that after taunting Mike during their swim race he stops and clearly shows concern after Mike hurts his head when hitting the rock. Totally averted at the end when he cheers for the cutters after narrowly losing the race.
  • Where Did We Go Wrong?: Ray feels this way about Dave.
  • You Called Me "X"; It Must Be Serious: Ray knows something's up with Dave after his race with the Italians when Dave calls him "Dad" again instead of "papa".
    • Likewise, Kathy knows something's wrong when Dave calls her by her name instead of Katerina.

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