Remember the ads for a recent loser predicting that America was about to have another love affair with a movie? The affair didn't materialize in that case. But it should for "Breaking Away," the year's most indigenous and appealing American movie.
It is ironically statisfying that this modest, humorous, authentically stirring piece of American movie.
It is ironically stisfying that this modest, humorous, authentically stirring piece of Americana, a coming-of-age story about four boys from the university town of Bloomington, Ind., groping toward self-respect a summer after their high-school graduation, should result from the first creative collaboration between two transplanted Europeans, writer Steve Tesich and director Peter Yates.
"Breaking Away" is likely to unite moviegoers of all ages, regions and levels of intelligence. A lucid depiction of familiar adolescent uncertainties and social tensions in an authentic mid-american setting, the movies is affectionate but never sappy, neat but never overcalculated, unobjectionable but never innocuous. It leaves a positive, heartening impression, dramatically earned and emotionally justified. This unassuming, low-cost, no-star sleeper is so endearing that it could upset the blockbusters and star vehicles at the next Academy Awards.
"Breaking Away" derives its drama and perception of american class divisions fm the split between the university community and the non-U townspeople, at once attracted to and intimidated by an elite institution in their midst. The four pals -- Dennis Christopher as Dave, Daniel Stern as Cyril, Dennis Quaid as Mike and Jackie Earle Haley as Moocher -- are town boys who haven't gone on to college, either because they don't qualify or fear that they won't.
The runty Moocher, more or less on his own and seriously involved with a nice shopgirl named Nancy (Amy Wright), is gravitating away from the group and toward unskilled labor and early marriage. Mike, a former althlete, is pugnaciously resentful of the privileged college boys. In the film's most harrowing sequence he nearly kills himself trying to prove that he measures up to a heated frat athlete, a handsome, coky swimmer played by Hart Bochner.
The easygoing, funny Cyril is not highly motivated, nurtured by parents who "love to be understanding when I fail." As embodied by the lanky, hawk-nosed, delightfully cagy Stern, delivering his savory lines with impeccable timing, Cyril's precocious wit could easily flourish in another environment:
Approached by Mike's brother, a campus cop who awkwardly tries to make conversation with the gang by inquiring, "How are you doing, guys?" Cyril amiably drawls, "Well, we're a little distracted by developments in the Middle East . . . . "
The highly motivated member of the group is Dave Stoller, whose fanatical devotion to bicycling eventually supplies the boys with a means of testing their mettle and freeing themselves from townie resentments and feelings and inadequacy. Bike racing has evidently transformed Dave from a sickly, wimpy kid into a fiendishly fit, intrepid aficionado. Idolizing Italian racers, he has gone on an extended Italian kick that amuses his pals and mother (barbara Barrie) but aggravates his father (Paul Dooley), a used-car dealer.
Dave's passion is at once inspirational and potentially calamitous. The Italian accent that irks his dad proves a big hit with a sorority girl who takes Dave's fancy while he's riding around campus. But his sport has given him such a zest for life and exaggerated sense of well-being that he's reckless with his own life and serenely unaware of unfortunate consequences, to himself or other people.
A disillusioning encounter with his sporting heroes -- a team of Italian bicyclists participating in a cross-country race near Indianapolis -- brings Dave back down to earth. Still an enthusiast but no longer burdened with affectations, he proves a tougher and more inspiring competitor.
The Bloomington locales are remarkable. Invariably fresh and concrete, they lend themselves to beautiful symbolic suggestions as well. For example, the boy are introduced at an amazing site, a secluded lake in an abandoned limestone quarry. At first it seems their special, majestic "swimming hole." Later it evolves into a dramatic backdrop for rivalry between the college boys and townies, and finally comes to symbolize the class schism in the community itself.
The derisive term for town boys on campus is "cutters," apparently derived from "stpmecitters' and possibly reflecting an earlier period of campus prejudice against the working class of Bloomington. In his youth, Dave's father had worked the limestone quarries whos stones were used to build many university edifices.
In a memorable scene, Mr. Stoller confides that he often thinks of walking around campus to admire the buildings but feels "out of place." He's proud of the work, but feels somehow intimidated and exclued by the finished product. He asks if Dave and his friends still swim at the quarry. Assured that they do, Mr. Stoller remarks, "The only thing you-ve got to show for it is the holes we left behind."
This extraodinarily touching sequence is the best of its kind since the father-son reunion between Paul Winfield and Kevin Hooks in "Sounder." It also anticipates the exciting, climactic sequence, a marathon bicycle race in the university stadium. Dave and his friends enter as a four-man team. Since the stiffest competition comes from the hated frat rats, the social antagonism becomes dramatically and pictorially concentrated in the outcome of the race.
During most of the film Yates does himself proud as a director of low-key comic naturalism and ensemble acting. His old "Bullitt" flair is evident in the early sequennces of bikes in fluid, picturesque of bikes in fluid, picturesque motion. He surpasses himself during the neck-and-neck race to the finish, shooting the final two laps from a single, comprehensive vantage point that keeps all the contenders in view. It's a spectacular kinetic payoff.
Occasionally Tesich seems to articulate conflicts more explicitly than he should. At the same time, what a relief it is to hear ordinary people express their feelings plainly and sometimes eloquently. This faculty used to be commonplace in our movies, but now one is more likely to contemplate the situation taken to maddening extremes in "The Deer Hunter," where the characters rarely say anything pertinent and the actors are forced to communicate almost exclusively through eye contact and pregnant pauses.
An alienating image of wimpiness in the recent "Califfornia Dreaming," Dennis Christopher emerges from "Breaking Away" as an enormously winning young actor. It proves once again that a potent role and a responsive director can make a world of difference. Paul Dooley, a tiresome fixture of the last two Robert Altman comedies, "A Wedding" and "A Perfect Couple," blossoms as a comedic character actor under the same healthy influence.
A happy, unpretentious artistic breakthrough, "Breaking Away" should soon have a vast moviegoing public breaking into sustained, heartfeld applause.
Tesich, 35, is best known as a promising young playwright. "Breaking Away" is his first movie script -- the best original screenplay and most auspicious dbut since Paul Brickman's "Cittizens Band." Although Tesich has insisted that the story is not autobiographical, the material presumably grew out of his experience. His parents moved to the United States from Yugoslavia when he was 13, and Tesich sent his undergraduate years at the University of Indiana in Bloomington. Like his 19-year-old protagonist, Dave Stoller, Tesich was an avid bicyclist and raced competitively. One also suspects that like Dave's droll, wisecracking friend Cryil, Tesich was a keen observer and group wit.
Yates, 50, is an Englishman who settled in the United States soon after the success of "Bullit," his most famous picture up to now. Little in his previous work, good, bad and indifferent, could have prepared one for the luminous, sweet-tempered transparency of "Breaking Away." In fact, his last few credits -- "For Pete's Sake," "Mother, Jugs and Speed" and "The Deep" -- make "Breaking Away" seem like a stunning surprise, uncharacteristic but profoundly welcome. CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Dennis Christopher in "Breaking Away"