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150 Films #20: Breaking Away (1979)

Yeah, this movie is fucking great.

I first saw it in college. Funny story, when I took Screenwriting II in college—a course where we were to write a feature screenplay over the course of the semester—I had what I would regard as a shitty instructor. For the first session or two, we discussed and pitched ideas. After that, the three-hour class session was devoted to watching movies. Now, as a very mild defense of this tactic, he did expect us to get particular things out of each of his selections: The Godfather was all about character, My Bodyguard (yes, I watched this in a screenwriting class) was about structure, and so on. As I recall, Breaking Away was supposed to be about different ways of looking at conflict.

(Fun postscript: I accidentally ratted out this technique to my mentor, who was one of the heads of the screenwriting department. After watching a few movies, our class literally turned into a weekly 10-minute one-on-one meeting with the instructor, who made it increasingly clear each week that he’d only read our first 10 pages and was not reading the new material we were supposed to submit each week. With me, every single “meeting” went the same way: “You know your characters, so it’s great. Just keep it up.” I was not happy with the lack of substantive feedback, but at least he liked what I was doing. One of my friends in the class kept getting the same negative feedback, all based on her first 10 pages; she would push back with specific questions about what she’d done wrong, and he couldn’t answer. It boiled over when he told her she’d get a C for the semester, and she reported him for being sucky. I recall her asking me to write a letter of support for the notion that he wasn’t actually reading our screenplays.)

At any rate, I fell in love with Breaking Away when I saw it, because its central conflict—directionless “Cutters” from Bloomington, Indiana, resenting the more privileged Indiana University students who pass through their town—reminded me of home. I grew up in a Chicago suburb called Elk Grove Village, and while it’s an oversimplification to claim we had the same kind of “rich versus poor” divide, the area of town east of Route 53 was definitely more blue-collar than the west side of town. Seeing Breaking Away was like seeing, for the first time, that sort of existential conflict writ large: the frustration and resentment of knowing your more affluent friends (or, worse, enemies) would have the resources and support to go off to a big fancy college and get a big fancy job. Their lives seemed set, and ours seemed aimless.

Feeling that aimlessness naturally leads a person to find heroes, people who reflect the person they hope to be someday. For me, it was Stephen King and Kurt Cobain, blue-collar dudes with hardscrabble lives whose work tapped into something so universal, they each became huge in their respective fields. So I walked around draped in flannel and torn jeans, trying very hard to be cool as I learned to play guitar and not give a fuck, transparently ripping off Stephen King stories as I honed my own writing voice. (I’ll never forget the time I turned in, as an “essay” for health class, a short horror story I wrote about a man getting torn apart by a tapeworm. I thought that was a really funny idea, but my health teacher never quite looked at me the same way again…and that made me feel kinda bad.)

Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher) is a little more eccentric than I ever was. A cycling enthusiast, his obsession lies with all things Italy, where the best bikes are made and the best cyclists ride. To his mother’s bemusement and his father’s frequently hilarious irritation, Dave speaks in an Italian accent, peppers his speech with Italian phrases, blasts opera arias from his bedroom, and generally drives everyone he knows nuts with this fixation and emulation. But he’s not the only one: former varsity quarterback Mike (Dennis Quaid at his handsomest!) tries to fashion himself as a combination Marlboro Man and James Dean. They’re all going nowhere, living in the shadow of the university and its students, but the quarries that gave the “Cutters” their epithet have mostly shut down. Job opportunities are scarce, and these recent high school graduates have made a pact to all work together or not work at all.

As seen in The Breakfast Club, the group of Cutters don’t “look up to” their supposed social betters. There is jealousy and frustration, but certainly not admiration. The Cutters’ resentment of the students boils over throughout the film, until the university president tries to mitigate the conflict by bringing it to a racetrack: a group from the town can participate in the college’s annual “Little 500” cycling race. In a lesser script, the stakes would be higher: the president might offer a scholarship to the winner or some other such bullshit. Breaking Away doesn’t see higher learning itself as a higher purpose; it sees finding and embracing who you are as the highest ideal. The race isn’t about winning for a material reward; they want to win for an existential reward, to be able to tell themselves the Cutters beat the coeds for once.

Alternately funny, sweet, and cynical, the Oscar-winning screenplay by Steve Tesich is a coming-of-age story that doesn’t feel like one; characters learn things about themselves and the world that don’t feel like Lessons with a capital L; they just feel like Life (with a capital L), and the learning we all do. Credit also goes to director Peter Yates, whose eclectic filmography made him a strangely perfect choice for such a low-key dramedy. Of course it makes sense that the director of Bullitt can extract genuine excitement from a wordless sequence in which Dave races a semi truck, but he also manages to find some truth in the script’s silliest moment (in which Dave’s blustery father has a nervous breakdown that finds him repeatedly bellowing “Refund?!”).

Breaking Away speaks to me on a very personal level, but I think it’s hard to dispute it’s a brilliant film even without a distinct connection to its subject matter and themes. I’ve only seen it a few times since college, yet it merited a lingering spot on my shelf. That spot will remain.

Keep or Sell? Keep

Up Next: Brick (2006)

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