Overlooked & Underseen: Breaking Away (1979)
Several times over the nearly 8 months (!) I’ve been writing this wee informational column, I’ve highlighted movies that are actually lauded at the time of its release. Maybe it was nominated (or won in today’s case) for an Oscar or, perhaps, was in a bunch of top ten lists. We decided from the beginning to stay away from using the word “underrated” for a reason. I’m looking at movies that, yes, sometimes were hailed for greatness at the time they came out but, for whatever reason, they just aren’t in the spotlight anymore. So, without further ado… I give you Breaking Away.
Hang on, one more thing, yes, I know it’s considered one of the best sports movies ever made. I get it, I just want to put the title out there again so it gets a little spotlight and maybe get a few of you to actually watch it.
Dave Stoller (the always amazing Dennis Christopher) is a bike-riding obsessed 19 year old. Specifically, he’s obsessed with Italian cyclists; he rides a Masi, he tries to speak in Italian, he listens to Italian music, he shaves his legs… you get the idea, the kid is consumed by it. It’s to the point that when he spots an attractive female student, he goes out of his way to convince her he’s an Italian student. Dave’s Dad (Paul Dooley) thinks he’s a kook and he wants Dave to get a job. Any job. His mom (Barbara Barrie) is constantly trying to stand up to her husband about Dave’s choices.
Dave has three close friends, Cyril (Daniel Stern), Mike (Dennis Quaid), and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley). When Dave isn’t biking around town, the four of them hang out a lot. They spend their time swimming in the abandoned quarry. All of the them are being faced with their futures and are having a hard time dealing it with it. They are what a lot of people that grow up in college towns would consider “townies”, in this case, however, they are called “Cutters”. The town has a long history of limestone workers so the “rich kids” at the college use the term “cutter” as a slur. The four friends, apart from Dave with this cycling, seem to have nothing going on and nothing on the horizon. They look to the students of the university with both envy and loathing.
While we get to see a little of what each of his friends are dealing with, the movie mainly focuses on Dave. We see him struggle with trying to keep his girl through his deception and trying to negotiate living with a parent who is patently against his lifestyle. On top of each of their struggles is the town vs. university stigma they have to face every time they walk outside of their homes. At one point, Dave’s father discusses having cut the stone to build the university but never felt “good enough” to go there.
When Dave hears the news that professional Italian cycling team coming to town, he is beside himself. He is so excited to be able to race against his heroes. He gets to live out his fantasy but it is not all it is cracked up to be. Completely disillusioned, his friends have to convince him to be part of their team for the Little 500, a team cycling race the college is putting on. Eventually, he agrees to be a part of it. They call themselves the “Cutters”. This portion of Breaking Away is, hands down, one of the best racing sequences in all of film. If you don’t feel something after this movie is over, I don’t think we can be friends.
Let me just talk about the acting here for a second; you get a young Quaid, Stern, and Haley. All three of them are outstanding. It’s easy to forget how great an actor can be when they get older and their movies aren’t so good anymore. Paul Dooley (forever my beloved Wimpy) is fantastic. I’d be remiss if I didn’t remark on Dennis Christopher here. He is such a give it everything he’s got performer, it’s a joy to watch him work. It was no accident that I chose his movie Fade to Black to be the highlighted as my very first Overlooked and Underseen back in November. His work always feels like a revelation to me and I will forever champion it.
The movie is just one of those experiences where you think “I’m so happy this movie exists.” It’s not flashy in any sense of the word. The writing is great, the music is perfect, and the direction is spot-on. This movie just feels good. I love movies with all my heart but it’s take a lot for me to say that a movie moves me enough to actually want to tell the world to watch it. It’s a movie for everyone, yes, everyone.
Breaking Away is available on Blu-ray and for rental on several different streaming services. Please, if you need to watch something to make you feel good this week, spend a couple of hours with this one. You’ll be glad you did.