With all the renewed conversation about Lance Armstrong, I’ve had one of my childhood favorite films on my mind a lot lately: 1979’s “Breaking Away.”
It’s a great film about competition, life, friendship and how to pick up the ladies. OK, maybe not so much that last part, but I always loved the pick-up line, “What’s your major?”
“Breaking Away” is about four buddies, cutters as they’re called, in reference to their working-class upbringing by fathers who made a living cutting rock from a quarry to build Indiana University in Bloomington. They accept the moniker, but also realize the generally wealthier students don’t care for them because of it. The dad in the film, played by Paul Dooley (who was also the dad in “Sixteen Candles”), was one of the quarry cutters before becoming a used-car salesman. At one point, he utters, “It was like the buildings were too good for us. Nobody told us that; it just felt uncomfortable, that’s all.” Tough lesson to believe you are a part of something big but actually not good enough to enjoy the fruits of your labor.
Back to the cutters. Daniel Stern and Dennis Quaid are two of the ragtag group. It’s Stern’s film debut and he’s even skinnier and more awkward than anything else I’ve seen him in. Dave Stoller, played by Dennis Christopher, is the cyclist of the group, and planted in my mind a desire to become Italian. He wasn’t either; he just wanted to be.
The animosity builds between the students and the cutters throughout the film, with girlfriends being wooed away, a swimming contest at the quarry and a fight or two. Dave actually pretends to be Italian by speaking with an accent and riding his Italian bike.
When he learns the Cinzano team is coming to compete in a local race, he steps up his training, to the eventual dismay of a semi-truck driver. Sadly, the team he built up so much, the country he loved and wanted to be a part of, let him down. They cheated and looked at him in the same light the university students did. To them, he was a peon, and they weren’t about to let him take their spotlight.
And, as we are learning more about Lance Armstrong, Dave learns, “Everybody cheats. I just didn’t know.” Thankfully, that’s not true, but is more and more a reality in our society with the drive to be the best.
The film finishes with the Little 500, an actual bike race in Bloomington since 1951 taking its name from the slightly more famous car race in Indianapolis. Two hundred laps, four riders trading off on one bike. One can barely reach the pedals, one smokes and another has zero muscle, leaving the majority to Dave.
It’s a feel-good film, so I don’t need to tell you all that happens. There’s a little language, but it’s still something to show kids with a message that, with some hard work and dedication, anyone can win.
• Ryan Messer has worked for years in local television and theater. He has contributed movie trivia to the On magazine Facebook page and displays a knowledge of cinema arcana that is just short of disturbing.