Monday, October 20, 2008

Flick of the Week: "I want some American food, dammit! I want French fries!"

I couldn't be bothered with Question Time today, so let's move with Dennis Quaid from The Right Stuff to his breakthrough role in 1979's wonderful coming of age tale, Breaking Away.

I had not seen Breaking Away for close to 25 years. I think I saw it last in around 1984, when one of the TV stations was also giving the short lived series based on the movie a run. And yet despite not having seen it for that long, it had always been one of my favourite films of its type. Indeed along with The Year My Voice Broke (which unfortunately I have not seen since 1991), I think it is the best coming of age film since The Graduate.

And then a few days ago when thinking about what film I'd write about next, I thought Breaking Away would be a good one. I even worked out that I would mention I hadn't seen it for so long. Then I switched on Foxtel, and found that the movie was due to start playing on the Movie Greats channel in 5 minutes time. A marvelous coincidence, and even more wonderful, because the film was as good as I remembered.

It is set in Bloomington, Indiana, and concerns 4 local lads who have graduated High School, but have not made it into Indiana University (which is located in the town). The 4 are a mixture of types - Quaid's character is the ex-high school quarterback who was never quite good enough to get to college; Daniel Stern (who would go on to star in the Home Away and City Slicker films, and more importantly as the adult voice of Kevin Arnold in The Wonder Years) is a typical kid who is not quite good enough to get to college, but is no dolt; Jackie Earle Haley (he of Bad News Bears fame) as "Moocher" a guy destined to pretty much be... well I guess a loser; and finally Dennis Christopher, as Dave, the only one of the 4 with any real future. He is obviously bright enough to get into college, and is also a champion cyclist, but he feels the ties of his high school friends tough to break.

He also is going around pretending to be Italian.

Since winning an Italian-made racing bicycle, he has taken to learning Italian, and talking English with an accent, calling his father "Papa", shaving his legs (like all top cyclists do), and falling in love with a college girl (who thinks he is an exchange student).

It is a beautiful story - Dave's Dad, played as a typical small town American Dad of the time, is at his wit's end; his mother understands Dave's need to work through whatever he is working through, even if she doesn't quite understand why he is doing it as an Italian. The interaction between the three of them is wonderful - Paul Dooley, as the Dad, was robbed not have even been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor (unbelievably the kid from Kramer versus Kramer got a nomination!).

But as good as that interaction is, even better is that between the four mates. Quaid is brilliant as the never-gonnabe who knows he is destined to see young quarterbacks come to the college, and who knows it will never be him running on the field. Stern as Mike, who knows he's probably not destined for much, but who lacks the bitterness of Quaid, is also very good - his reaction at the end of the climactic scene evokes a good deal of pathos. The character of Moocher is probably the least well drawn, but he is representative of so many kids in small towns who won't ever get out, and probably wouldn't know what to do even if he did.

Apart from exploring those relationships, the film is an excellent sports film. Dave trains to be a top cyclist, races against his beloved Italians, and then, with the other three lads, races in the "Little Indy 500" cycling race held on the university, as a team called the "Cutters" after the derisive nickname given to the locals by the college kids in view of the fact most of the locals worked in the stone quarries and cut the stone for the buildings on the university campus.

Do they win the race? Well get it on DVD and find out. (*or read below)

The film is full of a number of sweet moments - Dave serenading his college girlfriend, the lads fighting the college frat boys in a bowling alley (with Mike having a bowling ball stuck in his fingers), and Dave racing a semi-trailer along the highway as Mendelssohn's "Italian Symphony" plays.

It's a coming of age movie where the focus is not sex, or filled with kids who talk like they are the most knowledgeable people going around (yes I'm looking at you Juno).

Add it to the file of they don't make 'em like that anymore, and add it to your must see again list.

Best line:
Dad: He's never tired. He's never miserable.
Mom: He's young.
Dad: When I was young I was tired and miserable.

*of course they do.

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