Breaking Away [1979]

Peter Yates's flag-waving film stands with To Kill a Mockingbird and American Graffiti as one of the best films about small-town Americana. Steve Tesich won an Oscar for his semi-biographical screenplay about four 19-year-olds who don't know what to do after high school. Dave Stohler (Dennis Christopher) and his three friends--ex-football star Mike (Dennis Quaid), wily comedian Cyril (Daniel Stern), and tough kid Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley)--are doomed to live in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana, where the local kids (nicknamed "Cutters"--a derogatory reference to quarry workers and their blue-collar families) are looked down on by the uppity students of nearby Indiana University. Stohler escapes into a world of Italian bicycling, picking up the lingo, the accent, and a good share of the talent of his heroes. He is also the scourge of his father's life. The used-car salesman (Paul Dooley) doesn't understand his son's affection for bicycling or, for that matter, his pride in being a "Cutter." Breaking Away rehabilitates the word heartwarming as Tesich's uncommonly intelligent script gives us well-rounded characters and a potent sense of place. The grandstanding finale--the real life "Little 500" bike race--gives the film a perfect, crowd-pleasing end. However, the film never sacrifices the development of characters for the action. Dooley is especially effective in one of those once-in-a-lifetime roles. The lifelong character actor's place in film history is established with this indispensable performance. --Doug Thomas

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