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Film / Breaking Away

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Breaking Away is a 1979 American dramedy film directed by Peter Yates, starring Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Jackie Earle Haley and Daniel Stern.

In Bloomington, Indiana, Dave Stohler (Christopher) and his friends — Mike (Quaid), a former star high school quarterback; Moocher (Haley), who's kind but has a Hair-Trigger Temper; and lovable loser Cyril (Stern) — mostly hang out and swim at the local limestone quarry. They can't afford to go to college (the local college is Indiana University), and they're looked down on by the students, who call Dave and his friends "cutters" (they're sons of the stone cutters who built the buildings at the university). In turn the cutters, particularly Mike, have a large chip on their shoulder toward the students.

Dave, however, is different in some ways from his friends. He was a sickly boy until he started riding around on a bicycle, and has since become a championship racer. He's also become obsessed with the Italian racing team, to the point where he starts acting Italian, to the bemusement of his mother Evelyn (Barbara Barrie) and the consternation of his father Ray (Paul Dooley), a used car salesman. It's also to the point where Dave passes himself off as an Italian exchange student after becoming attracted to Katherine (Robyn Douglass), a student at the university. Dave is especially excited when he learns the Italian team is coming to Bloomington for the university's annual Little 500 track cycling race. He's less excited when the cutters get entered into the race, but events soon change his mind about that.

The movie won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (for Barrie) and Best Adapted Score. While it was well received by critics it wasn't a big hit at the box office, but it has become a cult favorite over the years, usually showing up on lists of best sports movies and most inspirational movies.

This film contains examples of:

  • Actor Allusion: The Stohler family cat, Jake, has been re-christened Fellini by Dave. Though partly a play on "feline", it is also a reference to Italian director Federico Fellini; Dennis Christopher played a hippie in Fellini's Roma.
  • As Himself: Indiana U's real president at the time John W. Ryan chews the jocks out and opens the race to the Cutters.
  • Berserk Button:
    • Do not, under any circumstances, make fun of Moocher's height. Especially don't call him "Shorty".
    • Don't invade Mike's swimming hole.
    • Don't serve Ray any "-ini" food (up to, and including, zucchini). And above all, don't tell him he should give a refund for a bad car (REFUND?!?).
  • Beta Couple: While Dave's romantic overtures toward Katherine get the most screen time, in the background, we have Moocher and his girlfriend, Nancy. The few times we see them, they are clearly happy together, to the point that they go to the courthouse in Bloomington to get a marriage licence halfway through the film, and Nancy is seen congratulating Moocher after the Cutters win the Little 500.
  • Big-Lipped Alligator Moment: In-universe:
    {Ray storms into Dave's bedroom to get him to turn off the music, comes back looking dazed)
    Ray: He's shaving.
    Evelyn: Well, so what?
    Ray: His legs. He's shaving his legs!note 
  • The Big Race: Both the race Dave has with the Italian team, and the Little 500 race at the end.
  • Break the Cutie: What happens to Dave at his race with the Italian team; they cheat by crippling his bike and causing him to crash.
  • Broken Pedestal: The Italians. Dave worshipped them and they deliberately wrecked him in a manner that could've killed him for no reason other than being able to keep up with them.
  • Bumbling Dad: Ray Stohler. He's a xenophobic used car salesman whose main wish is for his son to act like a normal American boy, damnit.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander:
    • Everyone thinks Dave has become this, but he really isn't; he's more of a Bunny-Ears Lawyer.
      Neighbor: He used to be as normal as pumpkin pie. Now look at him. His poor parents.
    • Cyril has shades of this as well.
  • Coming of Age Story: For Dave.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Mike and Cyril both exhibit this, as does Evelyn.
  • Death Glare:
    • After the Cutters and college kids have a fight, the college kids are chewed out by the university president, who tells them if they want to compete against the Cutters, they can do so at the Little 500 race. When Rod protests the Cutters aren't good enough, Mike's cop brother fixes him with a death glare.
    • Must be genetic; Mike gives one of these when he first sees the college kids at his swimming hole.
  • Determinator: Dave doesn't let any injury stop him from competing in the race. He even has his friends tape his feet onto the pedals so he can't fall!
  • Double-Meaning Title: "Breaking away" is a bicycling term. But it also applies to the four guys trying to decide what to do with their lives.
  • Exact Words: "Don't forget to punch the clock, shorty." So Moocher does - right in the face, too.
  • Fauxreigner:
    • Dave pretends he's an Italian exchange student named Enrico when he first meets Katherine, and he either speaks Italian or English in an Italian accent.
    • At the very end of the film, Dave — now enrolled at IU — meets a pretty French exchange student, and, well...
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble:
    • Dave: Sanguine
    • Mike: Choleric
    • Mooch: Melancholic
    • Cyril: Phlegmatic
  • Gratuitous Italian: Dave, though again, it's justified, as he's been obsessed with Italy ever since he won an Italian racing bike.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Mike definitely feels jealous of the college kids.
  • Height Angst: Moocher is below average height and very sensitive about it; a guaranteed way to get him angry is to call him "shorty". He lasts 15 seconds in his car wash job because his boss calls him "shorty" when telling him to punch the clock (he interprets this instruction literally), and he throws the first punch in the brawl between the Cutters and the IU students when one of the latter calls him "shorty".
  • Here We Go Again!: Dave spends the first two acts of the film obsessed with all things Italian, driving his dad and his friends crazy as he speaks the language at every opportunity and fooling Katherine into thinking he really is Italian. Once the Cinzano cycling team smash the pedestal on which he has placed them by insulting him and taking him out of the race, he reverts to speaking and acting like a typical Indiana boy. Then he starts his first year at IU and meets a French female student - and in the final scene, he has shifted his obsession to all things French.
  • Hypocritical Humor:
    Ray: He used to be a smart kid. I thought he was going to college.
    Evelyn: You said you didn't want him to go to college.
    Ray: Well, why should he go to college?
  • I Have No Son!:
    • A rather funny version of this trope; Dave helps his father out at his car lot, and when a customer tries to return a car that doesn't work, and Ray won't take it back, Dave suggests maybe they should. Ray says to Dave, "Who are you?"
    • Earlier in the movie, Ray is trying to sell a car to a customer when Dave rides by and shouts "Buon giorno, Papa!" to Ray. Ray turns to the customer and says, "Friend of yours?"
  • Improvised Weapon: Cyril's bowling ball.
  • Insult Backfire:
    Mike: (referring to the college kids) They're gonna keep calling us "cutters". To them, it's just a dirty word. To me, it's just something else I never got a chance to be.
  • Jerk Jock:
    • Played with. Rod meets every Jerk Jock stereotype, but when he sees that Mike is clearly seriously hurt in their swimming race, he shows obvious concern and seems ready to rescue him until his friends do. Once it's clear Mike is safe, he quietly leaves, allowing Mike some dignity. Then he proves to be a gracious loser at the end of the Little 500.
    • The Italians on the other hand weren't only jerks, they were nearly murderers.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Ray is obviously very gruff with Dave and Evelyn, but he does love them both, and even shows it in unexpected ways.
  • Meet Cute: While studying Italian outside the campus, Dave notices Katherine. She rides off in her motor scooter, but one of her notebooks falls off. Dave gets on his bike, rides over, picks up the notebook, and chases her down on his bike while she's riding the scooter. She's very impressed.
  • My Friends... and Zoidberg: Late in the movie, Ray takes Dave over to the college, and mentions how he helped build the buildings in the college along with Mike's dad, Moocher's dad, and Cyril's dad. At this, he pauses, chuckles, and says, "Well, Cyril's dad...never mind."
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: "Moocher" is clearly a nickname, conferred upon the guy because of his habit of sponging off friends' hospitality (near the end of the film, he is seen dining with the Stohlers), but we never learn his real name.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: In lieu of an original score, the soundtrack features classical pieces from Rossini, Mendelssohn, and von Flotow.
  • Serenade Your Lover: Dave, as Enrico, sings an excerpt from the opera "Martha" outside of Katherine's sorority building. She's visibly touched.
  • Sexless Marriage: Averted. We see Ray and Evelyn having a romantic evening, and while we don't see it, it's implied they have sex. And then near the end of the film, we find out that will lead to Babies Ever After.
    Ray: Uh, the next word may be your last, kid.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Slobs Versus Snobs: The tension between the "cutters" and the IU students has elements of this.
  • Smoking Is Cool: Discussed and subverted. Mike carries a cigarette around with him, but can't bring himself to light it even though he thinks smoking is cool (his hero is the Marlboro Man) because he still thinks he needs to train to play quarterback again. Also, Dave tries to light Katherine's cigarette for her, but the lighter goes out of control, much to her bemusement.
    Dave: (pretending to be Enrico) You shouldn't smoke.
  • Smug Snake: Rod. Somewhat averted as well in that after taunting Mike during their swim race he stops and clearly shows concern after Mike hurts his head when hitting the rock. Totally averted at the end when he cheers for the cutters after narrowly losing the race.
  • Where Did We Go Wrong?: Ray feels this way about Dave.
  • You Called Me "X"; It Must Be Serious:
    • Ray knows something's up with Dave after his race with the Italians when Dave calls him "Dad" again instead of "papa".
    • Likewise, Kathy knows something's wrong when Dave calls her by her name instead of Katerina.