Wednesday, 21 June 2017

1,001 Films: "Breaking Away" (1979)

Breaking Away, one of the better "endless summer" movies to have emerged from the 1970s, centres on four boyhood friends from Indiana mooching through their first months beyond the school gates: there's champion cyclist and wannabe Italian Dave (Dennis Christopher), the romantic of the group; frustrated ex-quarterback Mike (Dennis Quaid), the hothead; plus a couple of nerdy hangers-on in Daniel Stern's Cyril and Jackie Earle Haley's Moocher. Together, they stumble into, and very quickly out of, their first jobs, declare unofficial war on the local college kids, and learn the hard way that life isn't fair. It's as good an example as any of just how relaxed American filmmaking was in its storytelling before high-concept took over in the 1980s: up until the climactic bike race, Steve Tesich's episodic screenplay simply hangs out and observes the boys scaring cats with their guitars, Christopher's efforts to keep pace with a Cinzano truck, and Christopher's father (Paul Dooley, in one of his earliest blowhard roles) decreeing that no "eanies" - by which he means zucchini, linguini and fettuchine - be served in his household. In the decades before Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong, cycling was a deeply idiosyncratic hook upon which to hang an essentially all-American feature; yet the ever-professional and unpretentious Peter Yates uses the bicycle, and one cyclist's collection of opera 78s, as the glue that holds these truthful skits and pieces together, and elicits performances of great charm from his principals. Quaid, Stern and Haley (recently seen as one of the slavekeepers in The Birth of a Nation) all went onto prominent careers; the slight air of regret hanging over the film is that, despite his long list of credits, the boyish and very likeable Christopher never quite reached the same level. Funny how life works out. Still, the loving but awkward rapport Dave shares with his pop may be the most beautifully etched father-son relationship in any teen movie up to (and possibly including) the American Pie films.

Breaking Away is available on DVD through Second Sight. 

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