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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Breaking Away, doesn’t

Peter Yate’s Breaking Away may spin a familiar coming-of-age yarn, but does so with dedication and sincerity that ultimately wins us over. It tells the story of four teenage boys who just graduated high school in a blue collar Indiana town struggling to figure out what to do next.
If this sounds like a familiar premise, allow me to assure you that the familiarities don’t stop there. The star of the clique is a sunny and handsome renegade named Dave (Dennis Christopher). He has one passion—bicycle racing—an obsession complemented by a love for Italian culture. He doesn’t understand how to commit to anything other than the thrill of the race—bad luck that his disapproving conservative dad (Paul Dooley) nags his son endlessly and occasionally laments his existence.
As the coming-of-age genre conventions in play already indicate, the rest of the movie will consist in Dave proving himself as a true athlete and finally winning the approval of his dad.
Despite the story’s refusal to bike off the trodden path, director Yates and screenwriter Steven Tesich infuse the film with some winning idiosyncrasies. Dave’s unabashed Italophilia works in hilarious contrast to the all-American fervor of his provincial hometown. Covering his walls with Italian posters and blasting Enrico Morricone from his bedroom, Dave drives his father so crazy that he refuses on principle to have any Italian food at the dinner table.
A more dramatic element that separates Breaking Away from the coming-of-age flock comes via setting the story in a college town. This forces the four working class teenage denizensto think about their own prospects in comparison with the more upwardly mobile careers that the local college students seem to be leading. It’s not an unheard of dynamic in a coming-of-age film—Goodwill Hunting comes to mind—but Yates focuses on it with penetrating seriousness.
Additionally, a remarkable performance by a young Dennis Quaid enlivens this conflict. Quaid plays Mike, the toughest and gruffest of the four teens. In a poignant scene at a college ball game, he discusses the agony of reading about the athletic accomplishments of the college kids in the town paper. He knows that he’ll grow old in his hometown and that the college athletes will stay young. A new batch will come every year and he’ll stay on the sidelines, still reading about them in the paper. Quaid avoids playing the scene for easy pathos. He instead remains severe and restrained, letting the drama stem from his pensive, level gaze.
Like Matthew Broderick in his Ferris Bueller heyday, Christopher’a natural charm allows him to ham up his performance without annoying us. He can play zany and vulnerable, cocky and gawky and sometimes all of these things at once. His versatility allows him to stay true to the contradictions inherent in adolescent behavior and carries the film through its highs and lows.
Complimenting Christopher’s performance eloquently is Peter Yate’s directorial restraint. Yates avoids wrenching up the tension of the material with schmaltzy motivation music or emphatic close-ups. He keeps his camera steady and avoids unnecessary editing. He has enough confidence in the young actors’ performances to give them room to breathe and this confidence proves warranted.
Breaking Away isn’t a great film. Much of the screenplay lacks inspiration. But it is carried out without confidence and care and is secure enough in its emotional depth to avoid heavy-handedness.

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