Wherein bon vivant Ben Livant and I (Dan Jardine) speak our minds about movies, mostly.
Breaking Away (USA, 1979, Peter Yates)
A Midwest American college town in the 1970s is the setting for Peter Yates' coming-of-age tale about four working-class teens who are trying to escape their parents' working class fates. As high school ends, these four young men must determine what do do with their lives, and the lad's options and decisions control the film's narrative.
Class consciousness and conflicts abound, as local college kids refer disparagingly to the protagonists as "Cutters." The blue-collar stone-cutters literally built the homes the rich kids live in and the college that these kids attend. Dennis Christopher is Dave, a relentlessly fanatical bicyclist who has suddenly decided to embrace all things Italian (right down to a tacky Italian accent), and his naïve but enthusiastic portrayal is sweet. Paul Dooley gives the film's most memorable performance as Dave's exasperated father. His character undergoes a quiet transformation from a cynical, weary, and worried fellow into a cagey optimist. Dooley was overlooked come Oscar time, though Barbara Barrie was nominated for her memorably wistful turn as Dave's mother. Breaking Away has a gentle soul, as nobody is too harshly treated (even the bad guys seem to have good sides). The central characters have dreams, but they wonder if those dreams are attainable. Dave's enthusiastic pursuit of his dream gives all the others hope, and it is the hinge upon which the crowd-rousing (though thoroughly predictable) bicycle-racing finale turns. Bike racing is the film's metaphor for escape: to break away from the pack in a race is equivalent to breaking away from one's familial and cultural history. The film pivots on the question of whether, and to what extent, this kind of breaking away is either necessary or desirable.
Historically speaking, it is interesting to note that the film, which leans far more on sweetness than bitterness, was something of an antidote for the grimness of America the late 70s, which was dominated by feelings of turgid despair. Appearing near the end of Jimmy Carter's presidency, Breaking Away embraces the good old fashioned small town family values that would catapult Ronald Reagan to an enormously popular two term presidency. Nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, Breaking Away won one Oscar, for Steve Tesich's Best Original Screenplay.