Peter Yates will forever remain best-known as the guy who directed Bullitt, and I suppose that's fair: Bullitt is a classic action film (or least a decent action film with a classic car chase), and much of the rest of Yates' filmography is pretty forgettable. Still, the director proved capable of churning out a winner every now and then. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a fine crime movie featuring a terrific performance from Robert Mitchum, while The Dresser is an exceptional adaptation of Ronald Harwood's esteemed stage play. Still, the most pleasant surprise of Yates' career is almost certainly the 1979 Best Picture nominee Breaking Away, a heartwarming, tender coming-of-age flick filled with humanity.
The film centers on four 19-year-old guys – Dave (Dennis Christopher, Django Unchained), Mike (Dennis Quaid, Great Balls of Fire), Cyril (Daniel Stern, City Slickers) and Moocher (Jackie Earl Haley, Watchmen) - living in Bloomington, Indiana. It's a college town (the home of Indiana University), but the guys aren't students. They come from poor families and can't afford a university education, so instead they spend their days lazing around and half-heartedly searching for jobs (a search largely hindered by the fact that they want to work together). The students in the area jeeringly refer to the guys as “cutters,” in reference to the fact that most of the poor people in Bloomington end up working as stonecutters in the limestone industry.
Though early scenes place a good deal of emphasis on all four of these characters, as the film progresses it becomes clear that Yates and screenwriter Steve Tesich (who also penned the big-screen adaptation of The World According to Garp) are most interested in Dave. After winning a Masi bicycle, Dave becomes obsessed with both cycling and Italian culture. He adopts a fake accent, begins learning the language, convinces his mother (Barbara Barrie, Barney Miller) to start cooking more Italian food (“He's obsessed with all those 'ini' foods – zucchini, linguini and fettuccine!”) and even re-names the family cat (“The cat's name is Jake, not Fellini!”). Dave's father (Paul Dooley, Insomnia) is exasperated by his son's behavior, but no amount of complaining can persuade Dave to give up the act (particularly once Dave realizes that his Italian accent makes him more appealing to a college girl he has a crush on).
Dave might have seemed like a cutesy contrivance in the hands of a different actor, but Christopher plays him with sweet sincerity. He rides down the street singing Italian ballads at the top of his lungs, and the effect is charming, not obnoxious. Despite his age, he's innocent enough not to fully recognize some of the harsher realities of the world he lives in. When Dave (inevitably) confronts some of those realities later in the film, Christopher makes us feel the depth of his disillusionment and heartache. Yates draws great power from the later scenes between Dave and his parents. “I didn't want you to be this miserable,” Dooley sighs, holding his tearful son close. Dooley and Barrie create a beautifully tender, lived-in relationship that always feels convincing, and the film regards them with deep affection.
One of the subtlest and smartest things Yates does is setting up scenes of tragedy that never occur. Dave rides his bicycle in front of a car... which just narrowly misses him. Mike hits his head against a rock while swimming... then shakes his head in bewilderment and keeps swimming. Moments like this aren't used to generate cheap suspense, but to quietly remind us of life's fragility. The hammer could come down on any one of us at any moment, so why not live while we live?
Elsewhere, the film roughly takes the structure of an inspirational sports movie, as Dave prepares to compete in a big cycling competition being held at the university. Most of the film's final half-hour is occupied by The Big Race, which is a little longer than it needs to be but still fairly rousing stuff thanks to Yates' energetic direction and our emotional investment in the characters. Even better is a thrilling early sequence in which Dave impulsively decides to race with an 18-wheeler. It in its own cheerful way, it's nearly as terrific as that aforementioned Bullitt scene.
There are some complex themes lurking in the background of Breaking Away (particularly in the scenes which underline the often-ignored American class divide), but this is fundamentally a simple, straightforward movie. It's a story about the struggles of growing up, about realizing that seemingly unbreakable childhood bonds must eventually give way to the realities of adulthood and about (as corny as it sounds) the power of friendship. This sort of thing has been done poorly on many occasions, but it's a real treat to see it done well.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Year: 1979