Four friends from an Indiana town are finding the period between leaving school and getting a job is a strange one. Currently their favourite thing to do is go off to one of the old quarry sites and swim in the water there, chatting and deciding their lives are headed precisely nowhere. Dave (Dennis Christopher) on the other hand has big dreams of being a champion cyclist just like his Italian heroes, and is in love with all things Italian as part of his obsession, much to his used car salesman father's consternation. When Dave arrives home, his father (Paul Dooley) is determined to have it out with him - or he does until he walks in on Dave shaving his legs. For aerodynamics, of course.
Breaking Away was a sleeper hit in 1979 which won a well-deserved Oscar for its screenwriter Steve Tesich. It's essentially the old, old story of the underdog competing in sport, but it was the characters that made it all ring so true and not be yet another stream of clichés; most movies in this genre could have taken a leaf out of its book. Based in part on a real life friend who, like Dave, was a dedicated cyclist and fan of all things Italian, the sense of growing up in a town that lives in resentment of the local university was one aspect of how vividly realised the production was.
One nice element of the film is that while almost everyone else in the film is cynical, jaded even, Dave is the true optimist who has found a passion in life that helps him get through what to his friends is a long ride to nowhere in particular. The other friends are played by Dennis Quaid (Mike), the angry at the world ex-football star, Jackie Earle Haley (Moocher), who wants to get married and is easygoing until his lack of height is mentioned, and Daniel Stern (Cyril), the intelligent but goofy one who like Dave makes a move to apply to the university as a try at bettering himself.
These four actors are never less than convincing in their roles, both individually and as screen pals and their banter always sounds natural. Although if there's a relationship that betters this, it's the one between Dave and his baffled father. Their scenes together are highly amusing and as the story progresses, surprisingly touching, with Dave unsure of whether his dad wants him to improve his lot in life, by going to university for example, or staying true to his roots and getting a local job. This means his cycling is what he channels his ambition into, or he does until one fateful race.
Dave is such an engaging character, and so affectingly performed by Christopher, that it saddening when he suffers his first real setback on meeting the genuine Italians who are not as pleased to see him as he is to see them. We have watched him romance a student, Kathy (Robyn Douglass), by assuming the guise of an Italian exchange student - although how she fell for that accent we'll never know - but he places that in jeopardy too. What's left is to compete in the film's climactic race along with his friends as the team of "Cutters" (as the locals are called) and despite the ending being in little doubt, you're still cheering them on. You wish for Dave to rediscover his joie de vivre, and if the film's cycling metaphors may be overstretched, the charm of the enterprise is such that you leave Breaking Away truly feeling better. "Bonjour, papa!"