I’m not really a big fan of what you would call “inspirational” movies. I guess you could say that I don’t like anything really inspirational. They just seem so trite and cliché. However, as with most rules, there is an exception.
The movie is called “Breaking Away,” and this 1979 Oscar winner for best writing, starring Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern (you probably know him better from “Home Alone;” he’s the tall, lanky burglar, aka the one who’s not Joe Pesci) and Jackie Earle Haley, is an absolute gem of a film.
The premise of the movie is simple. It’s a coming of age story. Four friends, played by the above-mentioned actors, live in a college town (Bloomington, Indiana, the home of Indiana University), but don’t go to college. They’re called “cutters” because, without a college education, their future lies in cutting sandstone in the quarries that surround the area.
Although they are called “cutters” that’s not really what they are. They classify themselves as that because that’s what the college kids call them, but their future doesn’t really lie in the quarry, and they know that; and the uncertainty of their future is what scares them, as it does most of us.
The first of our heroes is Dave (Dennis Christopher), who wants nothing more than to be a great cyclist. So, he pretends to be Italian, because all great cyclists are Italian (duh). Despite being born and raised in Bloomington, he speaks in broken English, shot through with phrases in Italian, goes by the name Enriquo, and drives his used-car salesman father crazy.
There’s Mike (Dennis Quaid), the bitter high school football star who always has a cigarette in his mouth, but never lights it, and resents the trash out of the college kids, who represent everything he’s not.
Cyril (Daniel Stern) is the lovable and surprisingly profound idiot who suffers from a serious case of daddy issues.
Then there’s Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) whose main issue is that he’s short. And there’s also the problem that he wants to marry his high school sweetheart, but the guys (Mike, in particular) don’t really approve.
Each one is trying to find his place in a world that presents him with two conflicting views; and each one has to learn to find his place and prove his value. Boiled down, isn’t that what all of us are trying to do?
So, at this point, you’re probably asking, “Why, of all the inspirational movies out there, is this one of the only ones Clara can tolerate?” I like it because it’s relatable. Sure, on the surface it’s your classic underdog story; but underneath, it’s the story of every 19-going-on-20-year-old, and the fact that Dave, Mike, Cyril and Moocher managed to figure it all out is inspiring in itself.
Each of our four “heroes” is wrestling with his own quarter-life-crisis. If that’s not something we can all relate to, I don’t know what is. As the trailer for the film so aptly puts it, “It’s a story about four guys in eminent danger of turning 20.” They don’t want to grow up, but who does really?
They learn life lessons that we all have had to learn. Dave watches his heroes, the Italian cyclists, Team Cinzano, fall from grace; he then comes to the realization that, “Everybody cheats. I just didn’t know.”
He also learns another important life lesson that I hope we’ve all figured out by now: you can’t live your life being someone you’re not. It will come back to bite you in the butt. I’m sure that most of you aren’t walking around pretending to be an Italian; but I know a lot of us, myself included, have probably gone through an identity crisis of some sort during our lives. Just don’t do it. It’s not worth it. I promise.
Cyril learns that he isn’t really the idiot that he thought he was. Despite the negative comments of his friends, and his unsupportive father, he (spoiler alert) manages to pass the college entrance exam.
Moocher, who has been under the influence of his friends (namely Mike) for his entire life, learns the importance of living your own life, even if you might get a little flack for it.
And bitter, angry Mike comes to the realization that you can’t re-live high school, no matter what; and resenting those that he secretly wants to be isn’t going to change anything.
These four guys, who, at the beginning of the movie, have no idea what their path is in life, figure it out (sort of) by the end. And we can too. It’s not always fun, and it’s not always painless, but we can too.