THE UNDERRATED – “SPORTS EDITION” BREAKING AWAY
This excellent slice of life/coming of age/character driven movie from 1979, which won the Oscar for best original screenplay, is on my list of near perfect movies. The look, the feel, the actions and choices the characters make, all of it has a genuine authenticity that most of these sorts of movies lack. Now with that being said I am going to guess that not many people have even heard of it let alone seen it, which is a shame because I wish more movies with this kind of quality were being made.
What’s Breaking Away you might ask? Simple it’s the story of four recent high school grads that live in Bloomington, Indiana, circa 1978. Thank you, have a good day. Oh you want more huh? Well, OK I guess. Like I said the story revolves around four friends that could be considered archetype sort of characters but aren’t, they are flesh and blood. There is the main character and the movies focus, Dave Stoller, played by Dennis Christopher who is the nerdy friend. Former high school hero Quarterback Mike played by the excellent Dennis Quaid. The outsider friend, Moocher, played by Jackie Earle Haley. Moocher got that nick name because he was living on his own (rummy parents and the like) and “mooched” food from his friends to survive. Lastly there is Cyril played by Danial Stern in his first film roll. Cyril was a high school basketball star but is hamstrung by low self esteem and a shitty father who pushed him way too far and made him feel worthless and incapable of doing anything well.
Our intrepid band spends their days working crappy jobs in the college town of Bloomington which is full of rich silver spoon motherfuckers that get everything handed to them and treat the locals, and anybody not of their rarefied strata, as backward servants. Fucking rich kids. They are one of the reasons I hated college. Having to interact with these college punks and the inevitable class war that breaks out is one of the many themes that drives this movie and plays itself out during the course of the film, especially in the race finale set at the “Little” 500 bicycle race at Indiana University. For our foreignally challenged friends, the Little 500 is a riff on the Indianapolis 500, a famous open wheel race run at a speedway in suburban Indianapolis during the US Memorial Day Weekend.
As usual I am not going too much into plot. I will be looking more at the characters and ideas behind the movie than how the movie gets from beginning to end. If you want to know the story itself, get the movie and be impressed.
The themes of alienation and being an outsider, even in what is your hometown, come naturally to the screen writer Steve Tesich, nee Stojan Tešić, born in what was then Yugoslavia (present day Serbia) and emigrated to America in 1957 as a fourteen year old. Tesich graduated from Indiana University and was an alternate rider on the 1962 IU Little 500 team. That is where Tesich met Dave Blase, the guy he based the character Dave Stoller on. Blase rode 139 of the 200 laps of the ’62 Little 500 which is exactly what Stoller did in the movie.
In the beautifully insightful script, Tesich wrote about the struggle of finding one’s place in the world earning him the best screenplay Oscar for his fantastic work. Breaking Away was created back in the day when the little gold bald man meant quality unlike today. (I’m looking at you Gladiator and Julia Roberts). Tesich was able to eloquently capture that “post-high school pre-adult” life of being 18. It’s that time in your life when everything seems possible and you feel like you can do anything. The only problem is that you don’t actually know how to achieve any of those lofty dreams you have so you end up settling for longing to fulfill those dreams, hanging with your friends and trying to figure out who and what you are as human being.
That span of time between 18 and 21 when you are technically an adult, but aren’t, are in my opinion the most important of your life. It’s when you figure out what you have in the tank as Man or a Woman. It really is the one time in your life that have total control of exactly what you are. Previously your parents and school held that responsibility and later on the family you make, your job and the government take that responsibility from you. Tesich was able to tap a vein in subtle and layered ways with his screen play.
The acting in Breaking Away is great. Every actor in the main group absolutely nailed their part. Quaid as the jock who fast realized his glory days are over was particularity poignant and angry but Haley as the ultimate outsider was just as good at bringing the anger out from under the nice guy facade. Danial Stern who made a career out of playing the loser low self esteem guy has never been better and Dennis Christopher as the nerd that invents an entirely new personality, that of an Italian bike racer, was perfect. I applaud then them all but the real outstanding work done in Breaking Away is by Paul Dooley and Barbara Barrie as Dave Stoller’s dad Ray and mom Evelyn.
These two were absolutely spot on as the besieged and bewildered parents of Dave with his love of bike racing, Italian culture and music. Barrie’s Evelyn, was herself, searching for her place in the changing world for women in the 70’s and Barrie was more then able to express the seeking nature of her character. To her credit Evelyn realized her son was doing the same soul searching. Barrie was at turns funny and deeply intelligent in her portrayal of Evelyn. As great as Barbara Barrie was though, the best, most nuanced and incredible work in this movie is done by Paul Dooley as Ray.
Ray had spent his life as a “cutter” in the quarries of Indiana, cutting and shaping the limestone the area is known for, until he is felled by a heart attack in his late 40’s. Ray was justifiably proud of his blue collar yet artistic career. Now he is trying to take care of his family like the man he is by selling used cars. Ray has stepped out of the only world he knew where he was known for the quality of his work and stepped into a world he doesn’t understand. It’s a world full of sons that listen to opera, wives reading Cosmopolitan magazine and rich punk, cock sucking, college fucktards that know who Nietzsche is and quote Shakespeare but can’t do lick of man’s work to save their worthless lives. These losers can’t even do something as simple as change the oil in their own car, the useless vampires. That philosophy degree is real handy, numb nuts. Unfortunately for Ray, that’s the future and he knows it. The days of taking pride in creating and building things are dwindling and the world of “ideas” and pussy jobs will be the norm.
The scenes between Dave and Ray are painfully real to watch and reverberate with authenticity you rarely ever encounter in movies. For me personally they hit hard. I never knew the sperm donor that knocked up my nutty ambulatory womb so movies that have strong family dynamics tend to gut punch me with the force of a sledge hammer wielded by a strongman on angel dust. This is what Breaking Away is, an emotional gut punch but in a good way.
Do I recommend Breaking Away? Yes I do, 100 percent. The writing, the acting , the cinematography, the direction, everything is damn near perfect and the most interesting thing about it, the movie was released in July of ’79. That’s right boy’s and girls, Breaking Away was a SUMMER movie and not an Oscar bait Thanksgiving or Christmas film. If only Hollywood still made good movies like this…