Peter Yates's flag-waving film stands with To Kill a Mockingbird
and American Graffiti
as one of the best films about small-town Americana. Steve Tesich won an Oscar for his semi-biographical screenplay about four 19-year-olds who don't know what to do after high school. Dave Stohler (Dennis Christopher) and his three friends--ex-football star Mike (Dennis Quaid), wily comedian Cyril (Daniel Stern), and tough kid Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley)--are doomed to live in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana, where the local kids (nicknamed "Cutters"--a derogatory reference to quarry workers and their blue-collar families) are looked down on by the uppity students of nearby Indiana University.
Stohler escapes into a world of Italian bicycling, picking up the lingo, the accent, and a good share of the talent of his heroes. He is also the scourge of his father's life. The used-car salesman (Paul Dooley) doesn't understand his son's affection for bicycling or, for that matter, his pride in being a "Cutter."
Breaking Away rehabilitates the word heartwarming as Tesich's uncommonly intelligent script gives us well-rounded characters and a potent sense of place. The grandstanding finale--the real life "Little 500" bike race--gives the film a perfect, crowd-pleasing end. However, the film never sacrifices the development of characters for the action. Dooley is especially effective in one of those once-in-a-lifetime roles. The lifelong character actor's place in film history is established with this indispensable performance. --Doug Thomas
BREAKING AWAY is a winning coming-of-age story with unusually well drawn characters, smart social commentary, and a terrific ensemble of fresh-faced actors soon to be famous. The rivalry between townies and college kids sets the scene for the story of four friends trying to figure out their future after high school graduation in Bloomington, Indiana. Raised together in the working-class quarry town, the boys consider themselves Cutters, proud of their father's heritage as limestone workers in the once prosperous factory town. But there is no future for the boys as Cutters, and not one of them has plans for college. So now that Mike (Dennis Quaid) is no longer a star quarterback, Moocher (Jackie Earl Haley) can't decide if he wants to break up or marry his girlfriend, and quick-witted Cyril (Daniel Stern) can no longer play the class clown, they have no idea what to do with themselves. Luckily, avid cyclist Dave (Dennis Christopher) knows exactly what he wants. He aspires to be one of the world's best bicyclists. There's only one obstacle: The leading racers are Italian, and Dave is not. A romantic dreamer, he races around his hometown, singing opera, speaking in an Italian accent, and stumping his parents with his newfangled Italian ways. When his affair with Katherine (an Italian exchange student) evokes jealousy from a few big boys on campus, Dave decides that a bike race is the only way to settle the score and prove that Cutters are not losers. The film features a remarkable performance from character actor Paul Dooley, who shines as Dave's befuddled and frustrated working-class father. Screenwriter Steve Tesich's script is an intelligent and humorous masterpiece, full of subtle humor and insightful dialogue. All the components combine to make one of the most charming comedies of all time.