SPRING TRAINING MONTH #7: Breaking Away, by Peter Yates (1979)

Type of Media: Film

Breaking Away had the opportunity to be so much more mediocre than it is. Its bare premise sounds incredibly forgettable, a coming-of-age dramedy about a teenager in Indiana who finds joy and freedom in competitive cycling. However, it’s much more than an underdog movie that tries to excite audiences in a way that usually leaves cynics like me feeling cold. This is a film about identity, and the roles that wealth, class, and sports play in determining how we view ourselves.

Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, and Jackie Earle Haley play Dave, Mike, Cyril, and Mooch, a gang of townies in Bloomington, Indiana who are adrift in life after graduating high school. The students at nearby Indiana University look down on them and call them ‘cutters’, a derogatory word for the working class of Bloomington, and they’re each trying to find their own way to escape. Dave, the main character, does this through an obsession with bike racing and Italian culture, sprinkling Italian words into his speech and worshipping an Italian cycling team. When he meets a cute girl from the university, he even pretends to be an Italian exchange student to woo her.

That’s the best description I can give without going into spoiler territory since there isn’t really a defined, overarching plot to Breaking Away, but that’s okay. Instead it’s more about exploring the tensions in Bloomington and how they affect the cast. The older generation doesn’t understand the younger because Bloomington’s limestone industry is collapsing and jobs are scarce. The college kids don’t understand the locals, who built Bloomington and resent people with more money and opportunities than them coming in and making them feel like they don’t belong. Dave’s dad, a used car salesman, even takes petty revenge by hoodwinking university students into buying junk cars with flimsy contracts.

And, most central to the film, Dave doesn’t understand himself. To avoid being a cutter, an identity that everyone thrusts on him from the college kids to his own family and friends, he adopts cycling and another country’s culture to make him stand apart. However, by the end of the movie one of those falls away. His Italian identity is based on a surface-level understanding of the country from their food and music, like how some people adopt Japanese culture based on their love of anime, so when he gets a reality check that part of him quickly falls away.

But Dave is legitimately great at cycling, and it forms a core part of his identity that can’t be taken from him. Being a good cyclist eventually lets him accept his roots, because he knows that he isn’t limited to what he can do just because he’s a cutter. It’s inspiring because it shows the power that sports can have over self-esteem, and how they can help people of groups that are traditionally held in low regard feel that they are just as good as anyone else.

Fans of traditionally feel-good sports movies like Rocky will find a lot to like in Breaking Away, but people who are interested in class struggle may also be intrigued by the divided society and dynamics of Bloomington it presents. Further, if you grew up working class and have ever been made to feel small because of that fact, you should definitely watch Breaking Away. It might make you proud to be a cutter.