Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Breaking Away’: As Stirring as It Is Whimsical

February 13, 2021 Updated: February 13, 2021

PG | 1h 41min | Comedy, Drama, Romance | 20 July 1979 (USA)

Films about underdogs that are sports-oriented, particularly ones that relate to the American Dream, can be tricky to pull off. Some, such as 1976’s “Rocky” and 1981’s “Chariots of Fire,” can go on to become classics—and deservedly so. Many others, however, can feel derivative and unauthentic, and in some cases, downright manipulative.

“Breaking Away” (1979) fits among the former camp—a rare gem in a large pile of coal. It feels incredibly grounded in authenticity, as well as very earnest in its delivery. Some of today’s cynics would probably even say naive.

Ironically, the actor who plays the film’s protagonist Dave—Dennis Christopher—was actually in “Chariots of Fire,” although, sadly, only in a supporting role.

Dave and his motley band of three young buddies, Mike (Dennis Quaid), Cyril (Daniel Stern), and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley), live in the Ivy League-ish college town of Bloomington, Indiana. Historically, the town was a center for stone quarry workers, but most of the quarries have been shut down.

four teen boys sunning
(L–R) Jackie Earle Haley, Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, and Daniel Stern play four teens grappling with adulthood, in “Breaking Away.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

The descendants of these blue-collar workers, who are known as “cutters,”  include Dave and his friends. The film emphasizes—early on—the wide disparity between these lower-middle-class townies and their college kid counterparts.

Dave, Mike, Cyril, and Moocher each have their own reasons for not going to college after their high school years. Therefore, much of the film is about their transitions to adulthood and their quests for their own little pieces of the American Dream.

The film also demonstrates class friction, as the college kids consider the cutters little more than unwanted detritus and the offspring of relics from a bygone era. Ironically, the original stone cutters had a major hand in building the town, including the gilded halls of its university.

Dave is an Italophile and not only appreciates the culture but also constantly practices his flourishing Italian-language skills on the locals. While this behavior peeves his father (Paul Dooley) to a certain degree, his mother (Barbara Barrie) doesn’t mind their only son’s eccentricities. What they both never doubt, however, is Dave’s ability and passion for bike racing.

family at supper with mother in kitchen
(L–R) Paul Dooley, Barbara Barrie, and Dennis Christopher in “Breaking Away.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

One day, Dave spies a beautiful college girl, Katherine (Robyn Douglass), as she mounts her scooter to travel home. She drops a notebook, and Dave picks it up and takes off after her on his bike. After they meet, a budding romance begins.

teen gives notebook to young lady
Usually, well-to-do college students like Katherine (Robyn Douglass) don’t mix with townies like Dave (Dennis Christopher), in “Breaking Away.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

Things culminate during the film’s third act as a big bike race approaches, and therein lies the crux of the movie’s title, which can be interpreted in several ways. One way is that Dave begins to emerge as the leader among his small group of friends. But will his natural athletic gifts (that begin to open up options for him) be at the expense of his childhood friendships?

There are other ways in which the term “breaking away” can be viewed, but I’ll leave that to the audience. Let’s just say that one of them has to do with the film’s rousing climax.

Goodness at the Forefront

One of the things that I appreciate the most about this film is its peppy writing, including witty dialogue. Even the relationship between Dave and his sometimes cantankerous father has a marked lack of mean-spiritedness that we typically see in similar movies.

Dennis Christopher as a cyclist in Breaking Away
Dennis Christopher stars as an eccentric, young Italophile in “Breaking Away.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

Also, all of the characters, including those in the supporting cast, are simply endearing. Even the supposed bad guys have their own flecks of goodness. This allows for some unusually complex characterizations that enable the characters to seem real, as opposed to cardboard cutouts or mere clichés.

“Breaking Away” is a lighthearted film that somehow conveys much deeper and thought-provoking questions. It’s fun to watch and ultimately ends on a good note. Yet its feel-good vibe never devolves into saccharine drivel.

‘Breaking Away’
Director: Peter Yates
Starring: Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern
Rated: PG
Running Time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Release Date: July 20, 1979
Rated: 4 stars out of 5

Ian Kane is a filmmaker and author based out of Los Angeles. To learn more, visit DreamFlightEnt.com or contact him at Twitter.com/TheRealIanKane