Has Indiana changed much since 1979?
I ask because I just watched Breaking Away, a 1979 nominee for best picture. Breaking Away was shot on location in Bloomington, Indiana and on the campus of Indiana University. And though the film doesn’t go out of its way to idealize either the state, the town, or the university –in fact, the title refers to the desire of several characters to break away from their life in Bloomington — it still manages to make Indiana look like the nicest place on Earth. Add to that, Indiana University is home to the Eskenazi Museum of Art, which I will someday visit.
Breaking Away is actually a film about a lot of things: it’s a comedy, it’s a quasi-love story, it’s bittersweet coming-of-age story, it’s a sports film, and it’s a sweet, good-natured film that made me cry. At the heart of the film is Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher), who has just graduated from high school and whose cheerful and eccentric exterior hides the fact that he appears to have no real future. Dave is obsessed with bicycle racing and idolizes that the Italian cycling team. In fact, he idolizes them so much that he decides to be Italian. He rides around Bloomington, greeting people with a merry “Ciao!” At home, he listens to opera and renames the family cat “Fellini.” While his mother (Barbara Barrie) is understanding, his father (Paul Dooley) cannot understand what’s happening to his son. Of course, Dave doesn’t truly believe that he’s Italian. He just desperately wants to be something other than who he is.
And who is Dave? He’s a citizen of Bloomington, a town that is divided between the upper class students at Indiana University and the blue-collar townies. The students call Dave and his friends “cutters,” because the only real industry in town is working in the quarry, cutting stone. The students look down on the cutters and the cutters resent the students.
Dave has three close friends, all of whom were big in high school and who are now facing an uncertain future of anonymity. Cyril (Daniel Stern) is the funny and quirky one, the former basketball player who talks about how he would like to be a cartoon character. Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) is usually easy-going but loses his temper whenever anyone mentions that he’s short. (At one point, Moocher’s boss orders him to, “Punch the time clock, Shortie!” Moocher literally does just that.) And finally, there’s Mike (Dennis Quaid). Mike is their leader, a former high school quarterback who idolizes the Marlboro Man and who knows that he’s destined to spend the rest of his life in Bloomington, going from “20 year-old Mike” to “mean old man Mike.”
When Dave meets a student named Katherine (Robyn Douglass), he pretends to be an Italian exchange student and, soon, he’s serenading her on the lawn of her sorority house. That doesn’t make Katherine’s boyfriend, Rod (Hart Bochner), happy. Rod and his friends beat up Cyril, which leads to another fight at a bowling alley. (Cyril, for his part, gets his finger stuck in a bowling ball.) Seeking to broker some sort of peace and understanding between the students and the town, the university president (played by John Ryan, who was the real-life President of Indiana University at the time) announces that the cutters will be invited to take part in the annual Little 500 bicycle race at Indiana University.
And you can probably guess how the race turns out. It’s a feel-good sports film so you already know who is going to win and that he’s going to have to win after initially falling behind and sacrificing a big lead. You know all that but it doesn’t matter. Breaking Away is such a sweet and well-acted movie that it still brought tears to my eyes even if the ending didn’t surprise me.
And really, the film does have a few surprises. For one thing, Rod turns out to be not as bad a guy as you initially think he’s going to be. Over the course of the film, he gets two small reaction shots, both of which hint that he’s not as much of a jerk as he often appears to be. It’s a minor detail and it’s easy to miss but what’s important that it’s there and it’s one of the many small details that makes Breaking Away feel alive. After watching the movie, I feel like I could go to Bloomington and still find all these character hanging out at the quarry.
There’s another scene that I want to mention. This is the scene that made me cry. Dave and his father walk around the university and his dad talks about how he and the fathers of all of Dave’s friends helped to cut the stone that was used to build campus. His dad admits that, even though he helped to build it, he’s never felt comfortable on the campus and then tells his son that he doesn’t have to be a cutter. And it’s such a heartfelt scene and so beautifully performed by Paul Dooley and Dennis Christopher that I started to cry. Perfectly acted, perfectly directed, and perfectly written, what a great scene! Fantastico!, as Dave might say.
I loved Breaking Away and I bet you would to.