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Breaking Away (Peter Yates) 1979


    The sports film is definitely one of the most cliché ridden of all film genres. Still, every so often one comes along that is disarming enough to make audiences willingly lap up its lack of creativity. Released in 1979 to great critical acclaim, and, eventually, a multitude of Oscar nominations, Peter Yates’ Breaking Away is as mainstream as sports films come. Set in Bloomington, Indiana, this movie examines an aimless group of recent high-school graduates as they try to find themselves while fighting with the spoiled college kids that they feel invade their town. Without much in the way of responsibility (they don’t work or study) or personality (one scrappy character’s most defining characteristic is his height), the kids gradually come of age in the year after high school. Dave (Dennis Christopher), the protagonist of the story is obsessed with bicycle racing, and before long, the two factions square off in a bicycle race. We’re meant to root for the townsfolk because they’re underdogs, and boo the college students because they’re rich.


    This timeworn material probably should work, but it doesn’t really since, most of the film’s angst and conflict seems calculated. The scenes that contain little or no dialogue, especially those that show actual bicycle racing, are those that work the best, since whenever the characters start talking, they make bold proclamations that are obviously meant to have implications beyond their lives. I suppose this sort of schematic filmmaking makes these small town folk easier to relate to for many people, but for me, it was too obvious and too synthetic to be convincing. As a result, the uplift that is predictably delivered feels more like manifest destiny than a pleasant surprise. An even greater problem arises when a movie this manipulative relies on its modesty to be involving, and Breaking Away’s attempts at modesty nearly always fall flat, despite the best attempts of the actors involved. The saving graces of Breaking Away are the performances, which don’t seem to take this fluff too seriously, and the film’s tone, which often skews toward the comic. The only way that one can take this film’s inflated sense of nostalgia and Americana is with a grain of salt, so the gentle mocking that it receives seems fitting. The inflated sense of drama and burlesque caricatures of concerned parents that Paul Dooley and Barbara Barrie bring to their roles as Dave’s parents suggests that they seem to be most in on the joke, but many of the movie’s winsome moments seem over-the-top in a way that suggests our eye-rolling is the appropriate response.


* * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman