1979 / Best Director / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actress

Film #337: Breaking Away (1979)

Throughout this challenge I have encountered some directors that I’ve previously been unaware of in the past. This is usually because these directors aren’t particularly big names and don’t get the same publicity as the likes of Spielberg and Scorsese. One of these directors is British-born Peter Yates who, by the 1980s, had already helmed a diverse range of films from the Cliff Richard classic Summer Holiday to the iconic Steve McQueen picture Bullitt. But it wasn’t till the 1980s that his films began to get nominated for Best Picture, with two very different offerings up for the big prize.

The first film is an incredibly American piece of cinema, so much so that it’s hard to imagine that it’s been directed by a Brit. Breaking Away focuses on four nineteen-year-old men living in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana none of whom have elected to take on higher education. Dave, Mike, Cyril and Moocher have instead decided to take a year off from doing anything in particular much to the chagrin of Dave’s second-hand car dealer father. Dave’s big passion in cycling and in particular he has a love from everything Italian from the music to the language. Posing as an Italian exchange student, Dave captures the eye of college attendee Kath and the two begin a relationship. Meanwhile, Dave is excited when a group of Italian racers come to town, primarily as he is eager to compete against them. However, the experience at the race leaves him disenfranchised with life in general and he drops the Italian fascination altogether. Meanwhile Mike, sick of being disparaged by the college students, is eager for the group to participate in the ‘Little 500’ a bike ride that is traditionally only open to the members of the institution. This forces a dejected Dave to put his life in order and build a proper relationship with a father that he has more in common with than he first thought.

Breaking Away definitely feels like it’s been influenced by coming-of-age films like The Last Picture Show and American Graffiti. But, whereas those films were stuck in the past, Breaking Away still feels relevant almost thirty-five years after it was released. There’s just something relatable about the four central protagonists who haven’t quite decided want they want to do with their lives and are under pressure to find their place in life. Steve Tesich’s script is incredibly well-observed as the four protagonists talk to each other as young men would and each has a clearly defined character. The cycling motif of Breaking Away forms some of the film’s best set pieces namely the end race which has plenty of time devoted to it. But Breaking Away is more than just a cycling film and is an exploration of both friendship and the bond between a father and a son. I’m not afraid to admit that I got emotional at least once during the last twenty minutes of the film as Dave’s dad finally opened up to his son. The whole film is enhanced by the use of the Italian classical music which gives Breaking Away its own identity and sets it apart from other coming-of-age movies. In terms of performances the film really belongs to Dennis Christopher as Dave as he delivers an incredibly captivating turn throughout. Christopher won newcomer awards for his role here but oddly he’s the only member of the cast who isn’t a recognisable name. Instead Christopher’s co-stars Daniel Stern, Jackie Earl Haley and especially Dennis Quaid have gone on to have bigger success further down the line. If I have one criticism of the film then it’s that Stern’s Cyril really doesn’t have a lot to do save a couple of overtly comic moments. But that’s a minor quibble in a film that I enjoyed incredibly as it combined emotional, realistic drama with some genuinely funny lines.


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