A sports movie can be the very definition of a cliché: an underdog story, a “back in my day” story, a snobs vs. slobs story. But sometimes, it’s not about how many clichés are crammed into a movie; a cliché is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s how your movie uses that cliché that makes it a dull slog of tropes or makes it a near-magical combination of archetypes into something really special. Thankfully, Breaking Away, my favorite sports movie, is in that second category.
This is tale of one Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher), a man just out of high school who hasn’t decided what he’s doing with his life yet in his small town of Bloomington, Indiana. But he does know he’s obsessed with Italy and especially in regards to bike racing. He spends his days doing two thing: gallivanting about with this three similarly aimless friends (played, in a bit of 1979 lightning-in-a-bottle casting, by Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley) and training to be a bicycle racer. It’s obvious that he’s very, very good from the beginning (there’s a fantastic scene where he drafts behind an 18-wheeler on the highway) but even this is kind of aimless because he’s not even sure what he’s training for.
Meanwhile, his parents (played by the fantastic Barbara Barrie and Paul Dooley) are worried about their son; his mother Evelyn cares for him and is more willing to let him find his own way, while his father Ray is a bit more hard-nosed. Growing up in Bloomington, they’re familiar with the college kids looking down on the townies, who get called Cutters after the stonecutting industry that used to dominate the area. Ray was a stonecutter back in the day, and he’s proud of that, but he wants more for his son. One of the joys of this movie is how Ray comes to understand his son (who insists in acting like he’s Italian, calling his dad Poppa and the cat Fellini) a bit more and Dave understands him; Dooley is so damn good at playing fathers (see Sixteen Candles), and his scenes in this movie are worth the price of admission alone.
After a fight with the college kids, IU determines that to ease tensions with the Cutters, the annual Little 500 (an actual bike race that’s a huge deal) will be opened to a team from outside the school and the four guys get an invitation even though the students complain that they’re essentially novices. So! We now have hit all our clichés, but once again, it’s how well they’re used that counts. (I mean, who the heck do you think wins the race?)
And boy, does this movie use them well. It should be heavy-handed as hell, like parts of Hoosiers, but this movie is incredibly light on its feet. What’s really impressive to me is how it has at least four separate side-plots (Ray and Evelyn’s marriage, one of the guys wanting to get married, an Italian racing team coming to town for an exhibition and Dave pretending to be an Italian student to woo a sorority member), but they never feel like they’re crammed in. Everything flows together into a smart, touching whole.
I want to close by talking about the look of this movie; it would have been easy to skimp a bit on the racing in this movie, focusing on other things, but cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti (who’s done very nice work in his career on things like Strange Days, Poltergeist and Fast Times at Ridgemont High) is really, really good at filming the action in this, as well as hazy spring days down at the flooded quarry. His filming of the climactic race is genuinely thrilling and gets you tense in your seat as to how it’s all going to end. (Breaking Away received five Oscar nominations, winning for Steve Tesich’s screenplay, but somehow Leonetti was overlooked and that’s a damn shame to me.)