***/**** Image C- Sound C-
starring Dennis Christopher, Dannis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Jackie Earle Haley
screenplay by Steve Tesich
directed by Peter Yates
by Walter Chaw For me, Peter Yates's Breaking Away is the logical precursor to the particular nostalgia of Bob Clark's A Christmas Story. It details in its limpid, lissom way small-town life through the prism of quaint friendships and a family with a sympathetic mom (Barbara Barrie), a curmudgeonly pop (Paul Dooley), and David (Dennis Christopher), their stargazer son.
Fresh out of high school in that magical summer between childhood and responsibility, Dave decides to become a professional bicyclist--and Italian. His friends are split between the townie resigned to his lowly fate (Dennis Quaid), the goofy one (Daniel Stern), and the short one (Jackie Earle Haley). Wrapped around an underdog sports story and more Vivaldi than a season at the Pops, Breaking Away is everything comfortable at the movies but done with wit, affection, and verve.
The film sets its stage in Bloomington, Indiana, transferring its S.E. Hinton kid clique antagonism to a series of bowling-alley conflagrations between the "Cutters" and the "Socies" (quarry workers and college boys, respectively) while shoehorning in some villainous Italians. There's a joy to Breaking Away that forgives its occasional skylarking and narrative dips into the cliché pool--a scene in which Dave drafts an eighteen-wheeler on the freeway remains an eloquent expression of that freedom which comes with desire and hope. Another scene that sees the four townie chums diving into the deep blue pool formed in a rock quarry takes the story to a place out of time.
Breaking Away soars in scenes like this, making bold pronouncements through images of the American middle with little fanfare or pontification. Coming-of-age and underdog sports films follow predictable story arcs to be certain, but Breaking Away's performances and wise screenplay (which won an Oscar for Steve Tesich) adhere to Yates's smoothly professional direction into something heartfelt and nostalgic. It's melodrama of the best kind, a relaxed piece that doesn't embarrass itself with aspirations to something higher. By knowing its limitations, the film overcomes them with grace and elegance.
An addition to Fox's "Family Features" DVD line, Breaking Away, like so many of the titles under that brand, boasts of an alarmingly bad video transfer. Its approximately 1.72:1 anamorphic video (the box lists it as 1.85:1) is thickly grainy through and through, with colours dull and muted and black levels marked by after-image and artifacting. The Dolby Surround track lacks scope and muffles some of the dialogue.
A flipside "pan-and-scan" version is somewhat misleadingly named as it appears to provide more information on the horizontal margins. This unmatted presentation, however, suffers from the same transfer problems as the widescreen one. Two TV spots and a trailer for Breaking Away plus bathetic previews for other "Family Features" selections--The Sandlot, My Bodyguard, Rookie of the Year, and Baby's Day Out--round out the double-sided platter. Originally published: March 12, 2002.