Saturday 1 July 2017

Movie Review: Breaking Away (1979)

A coming of age comedy drama about young men encountering the realities of life, Breaking Away is filled with heart, soul, and bicycle wheels spinning in all the right directions.

In the small town of Bloomington, Indiana, four young men have completed high school and have no future plans. Referred to as Cutters (the town used to be best known for limestone stonecutters), Dave (Dennis Christopher), Mike (Dennis Quaid), Cyril (Daniel Stern) and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) spend their days at the scenic water reservoir carved out of the quarry, lamenting their lack of life prospects.

Mike was the high school quarterback and carries a chip on his shoulder as he sees the world passing him by. Cyril is tall and goofy, Moocher is short and planning to get married early. Dave has developed an obsession with cycling and everything Italian. Much to the horror of his car salesman (and ex-stonecutter) father Ray (Paul Dooley), Dave is immersed in Italian culture, trains hard on his bike, and is very excited that the Italian Cinzano team is coming to town for a race. He also romantically pursues college girl Katherine (Robyn Douglass).

The Cutters tangle with snooty college boys including Rod (Hart Bochner), before Dave is exposed to the true colours of professional cyclists and the outcasts are invited to compete in the annual Little 500 college bike race.

Directed by Peter Yates and written by Steve Tesich, Breaking Away is loosely inspired by real events. The film carries a distinctive small town charm, building and maintaining likability momentum. The story of underdogs who deliver when it matters is far from new, but Yates and his cast of then unknowns polish the narrative with the warmth of a sun-drenched reservoir and a large heart pumping the eternally optimistic Dave towards his pedal dreams.

The four young Cutters capture a cross-section of outcasts, and Yates efficiently draws out distinctive personalities without resorting to melodramatics. While Dave pursues both cycling and the girl with a disarming intensity, Mike is the angry young man who knows his life peaked in high school. Moocher will always fight against taunts about his lack of height, but is nevertheless determined to settle down with a wife at a young age. Cyril is quiet, tall and maybe the sleeper in the group, hiding potential behind his superficial dopeyness.

The film benefits from a multi-pronged perspective on the challenges facing Dave. He never questions his own ability, but has to overcome severe cynicism from his father and the arrogance of the college community. But the most unlikely blow comes from his supposed heroes, Dave getting an early lesson in the cutthroat world of high level competition.

The young cast members bring the Cutters to life and launch their careers towards varying degrees of success. Breaking Away proved to be a highlight achievement for Dennis Christopher and Jackie Earle Haley, but more of a starting point for Dennis Quaid and Daniel Stern. All four bring an appealing naturalness to the film.

Deploying humour in just the right amounts, Breaking Away is a winning sprint to the finish line of youth.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


  1. This is one of my mother's favorite movies, so it's one that gives me a little bit of a warm fuzzy. I find it hard to judge objectively because of that, so it's nice to see someone else enjoying it.

    It does, honestly, hit the "Hollywood underdog" story pretty heavily, but it does make up for it with great characters. I always feel that I like it a little more than I should. Maybe not.

    1. I first saw this one when it first came out and remember loving it back then. It's just quietly excellent - warm and fuzzy is a good description.

  2. This is such a charming film, but not in an obvious way: its joys are quiet and sneak up on you. I also loved the subplot with Dave's parents and their romance. You rarely see older people portrayed like that in films.

    1. Charming is a perfect word for it. I agree about the parents - the portrayal of Dave's home life dynamics definitely enriches the experience.


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