I remember seeing this movie when it first came out in theaters in the late ‘70s.   I was in high school in rural Michigan at the time, and had never heard of Bloomington, Indiana or Dennis Quaid.  I was definitely a bit sheltered.  However, years later, when I found myself living in Bloomington while attending my first year in law school at Indiana University, I rented this movie again to get a grasp on my new geographic location.

This is a little known movie, but a real gem, whose screenplay, written by Steve Tesich, won the Oscar for best original screenplay.  Tesich also wrote the screenplay for “Eyewitness” (1981), which has not, unfortunately, stood the test of time; “The World According to Garp” (1982) from the book by John Irving; and “Eleni.” (1985).

The main character of Breaking Away is the quirky Dave Stoller, played authentically by Dennis Christopher.  Stoller is a recent high school graduate who, like his three close friends, has no idea where his future is headed.   While most kids their age are off to college or on to other career pursuits, these four are stuck in some kind of teenage limbo – unable to move forward, and yet barely connected to the past.  Daniel Stern (narrator of “The Wonder Years”), Dennis Quaid and Jackie Earl Haley play his three friends.

Dennis Quaid was an little unknown actor when cast in this movie, but he’s young and has a glaring six pack some 25 years before that would be a Hollywood beefcake requirement.  His character is essential as he’s all angry testosterone and frustrated by his lack of future prospects – he looks ahead briefly in one scene at what the future will hold for him, and it’s not pretty.  He’s much more grounded than Stoller- not able to lose himself in delusions or daydreams in the same way Stoller has yielded to his Italian fantasy world.

Stoller is obsessed with bicycling and the Italians (even the cat’s name is changed from Jake to “Fellini”), and he dons an Italian accent at home, around his friends and everywhere necessary.   A little known fact about Bloomington is that many of the locals have a southern accent, as Bloomington is on the cusp to the deep south – it’s less than 2 hours from Louisville, Kentucky.  So Stoller’s accent would be uncharacteristic indeed!

Instead of thinking ahead,  Stoller is forever embracing the “now,” which would please Eckhard Tolle greatly, but does not really endear him to his parents!  His parents are working class, and Stoller’s mother (played by Barbara Barrie) is more indulgent in his fantasy life than his father (played by Paul Dooley).  His father is a stern, pragmatic, not-always-honest used car salesman who is completely confused by his son’s penchant for the Italians and his refusal to get a job or go to college.  As with most dad’s of his generation,  he interprets his son’s normal confusion and lethargy as being a “bum.”  Later in the movie, Stoller’s father partakes in a particularly mean rant that essentially calls his son a “lazy-freeloader-too-stupid-to-go-to-college-bum-won’t-get-a-job” while Stoller’s mother ironically reads “Valley of the Dolls.”

Stoller has a crush on a college girl, who inconveniently has a boyfriend in one of the frat-boy college guys.   Stoller approaches her with his Italian accent, makes up an Italian name for himself and a history as the son of fishermen.  He also sends her flowers and serenades her in Italian in front of her sorority sisters.  He’s a romantic and he has her duped to believe in his imaginary world . . . for a short while, anyway.

Aside from the theme involving Stoller’s coming-of-age, and the disorientation surrounding those years between high school and real life, this movie also explores the classic theme of townies vs. rich kids.  In Breaking Away, the townies are known as cutters in reference to the parents who cut local quarry to make the stones for the college, and the rich kids are represented by the college kids who attend Indiana University.  When I attended the school, I was in some kind of murky middle between the two – neither a cutter nor a rich kid, and mostly just a fish out of water in a climate infinitely more scorching than my native Michigan.   A few years later, Francis Ford Coppola would also evaluate this theme in his movie the “Outsiders” (1983), only he tackled the issue in 1950s America, in a time when the cutters become the “greasers” while the rich kids are known as the “socials.”

The movie’s crescendo takes place surrounding a real-life annual bike race in Bloomington – the Little 500.  It’s the cutters vs the college frat boys. Who will win?  If you like the movie “Rocky,” (1976) but remain unfulfilled by its ending, you may like the ending to this movie.

I was stuck by the image that all the bikers in the competition wore shirts that exemplified sponsorship from “1st Bank of Bloomington” or “Arby’s” or other local merchants – all except the cutters, who wore simple white t-shirts with the word “cutters” in black.  The greatest achievement throughout the movie was the use of the word “cutter,” as it slowly migrated from a word meant as an insult to a word that became a badge of acceptance and dignity.

From a feminist perspective, I suppose I should say that the movie lacks female characters in lead roles, and I would change the whole movie to center around four female friends and their collective “coming of age.”  But Stoller is so precious in his innocence that I can stand to see this movie  remain exactly as it was written by Tesich.  The female characters in it, while secondary, are natural and real – not stereotypes – and that makes the movie not offensive to my feminist sensibilities.  It is fine to have male coming-of-age movies as long as females are given the same opportunity to share.

This is a sweet movie that brought me back to a time before the infinite distractions of cable tv, cell phones and high resolution video games.  I highly recommend it.

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