One of the pleasures of revisiting movies we loved as kids can be in seeing how much richness the passage of time and our own experience brings to how we live and breathe the vision of the filmmaker, or the lives of characters that may be as familiar to us as members of our own families. Of course, it doesn’t always work this way—sometimes on return engagements the stuff which turned us on as young viewers is revealed to be crass or manipulative or otherwise false in ways we couldn’t have recognized without the benefit of a little maturity. But every now and then we get lucky and a movie that meant something to us when we were younger and just beginning to understand the world through more empathetic eyes turns out to be one that honors the passions and joys and disappointments of everyday life, one which retains its emotional resonance while rewarding the years spent thinking about it with richer perspective on its characters.
I recently went on a multiple-day cycling trip with some friends, and one of the ways I got myself prepared for the adventure was to revisit Breaking Away (1979). While perhaps not specifically a movie “about” cycling, Breaking Away is certainly steeped in the expressive capacity the sport has for its principal protagonist, a young Bloomington, Indiana townie named Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher), whose inarticulate yearning to travel a path other than the one laid for him by his blue-collar dad (Paul Dooley) coalesces through his love for Italian culture, particularly the world of Italian cycling. Naturally, it was Dave’s story, Dave’s yearning, that made the movie reverberate for me when I first saw it as a 19-year-old college junior. I was quickly approaching a crossroads of my own, and I understood not only Dave’s desire to be transported somewhere beyond the limits of his small-town upbringing, but also his closed-off relationship with his dad, whose comic hostility and intolerance toward Dave’s passions seemed impenetrable. (Mr. Stoller reminded me not only of my dad, but the dad of a close friend as well.)
I saw myself in Dave, of course, despite the fact that I was not at all athletic as a young man. But even when I first encountered the movie it was clear that Breaking Away, guided by Peter Yates’ clear-eyed, no-nonsense direction, had a way with subtly spreading its sympathies across generational boundaries. In 1979 we were still five or so years away from the invasion of John Hughes, a writer-director so eager to burrow his way into the hearts of minds of the youth market that there’s barely an adult character in his oeuvre who isn’t either a tone-deaf dunderhead or cripplingly dependent on the sympathies of the kids surrounding them, all of whose worries and fears and immature yammering always carry more weight than those of Hughes’ numb, defeated, clueless grownups. And at first glance Dooley’s characterization seems to flirt with the sort of narrow-minded blowhard-iness that would become a staple of Hughes’ never-trust-anyone-over-30 (except Hughes, of course) philosophy.
But Steve Tesich’s screenplay is smart enough to lay the groundwork for a tentative meeting of minds between Dave and his dad, and for moments that allow audiences to see Mr. Stoller as something other than a comic gargoyle, someone capable of remembering what it was like to be young and hopeful about the future. At age 19 I was relieved when the cracks in Dooley’s defensiveness toward his son began to appear. But probably because my tenuous relationship with my own dad was still far from resolved I was never fully able to rid myself of the sense that Mr. Stoller was a man who would continue to try to exercise his will and his pent-up rage over further signs of his son’s increasing independence. It remained for me, as a young man operating without the benefit of empathy for other perspectives, a movie whose primary concern was Dave.
In seeing Breaking Away as an adult, however, it’s striking to me that, with all due respect and reverence to Barbara Barrie, whose blend of compassion and stern sympathy as Mrs. Stoller has always seemed a perfect conjuring of weary yet warm motherhood, this is a movie about sons and fathers. And the plural is appropriate, because there are four friends (the title of another Steve Tesich-penned film) in the picture whose dads, in absentia from the movie and, in some cases, from their lives, remain influential, for better and worse.
Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) has a dad and mom who have moved away to Chicago in search of better employment prospects. But instead of feeling abandoned Moocher, fueled by his relatively sunny disposition, forges ahead, perhaps with his dad as an example. He’s got a girlfriend whom he wants to marry, and he keeps looking for work himself, though not too ambitiously. Moocher seems to have seized the opportunity, since his parents are no longer around, to feel out what it’s like to be truly independent.
Mike (Dennis Quaid), the disillusioned ex-jock, never speaks of his dad—we presume he’s dead, or perhaps he abandoned his family at some point. But he’s got a father figure to push against in the personage of his older brother (John Ashton), who not only has the advantage of age in the relationship, but he’s also a town police officer, one who occasionally, if reluctantly, has to assert his authority over Mike and his pals.
The likably sarcastic Cyril (Daniel Stern) is the only other one of the three with a dad who lives in Bloomington, but as he memorably recounts to Dave, it’s a father-son relationship built predominantly on the elder’s apparently only parenting skill—the doling out of sympathy during moments of failure. (“It’s okay, Cyril. I understand.”) During the celebration of the team’s unlikely victory in the Little 500, it’s the absence of Cyril’s dad that provides one of the movie’s most piercing moments—as Dave celebrates with his parents, Moocher hugs his now-wife, and even as Mike jumps up and down and hollers with his brother, Cyril can only look on, a wistful mixture of happiness and disappointment on his face, wishing that his dad were there to see him in a moment of success and provide him an opportunity to express a rare burst of exhilaration. It’s a moment notable for the subtly with which Stern plays it, but also for the way Yates almost glides past it, as if to stay longer with it might be seen as some sort of intrusion.
The key to unlocking the mystery of Mr. Stoller turns out to be not just the father-son scenes between him and Dave (“You’re not a Cutter. I’m a Cutter!”), but those involving Mr. and Mrs. Stoller, when the husband is eased by his wife into a better understanding of the son’s behavior, which Dad finds confounding. Tesich and Yates display laudable patience and intuitive storytelling intelligence in allowing the movie these moments during which wife and husband can relate to each other as people with a shared past, as human beings, not authority figures—just one more way the movie elevates itself above what would become John Hughes’ cheap bag of tricks. It’s in these moments that Mr. Stoller is tenderized toward his son, thus making sure the audience registers that Mr. Stoller’s understanding has been awakened before his enthusiastic embrace of Dave’s performance in the bike race, that his son’s athletic success is not the sole reason why the father has made newfound room for him in his overtaxed heart. What we once may have mistaken for hostility and intolerance on Mr. Stoller’s part can now more easily be seen as confusion over his son’s sympathies, his sense of being threatened by not being able to connect with his son’s interests, and most certainly an elder Cutter’s fear of being left behind to watch his son forge the sort of future he never could.
Breaking Away continues to hold a fascination for me because of the way it accommodates seeing both Dave and his dad from each other’s point of view. We are most certainly more on Dave’s side emotionally, but with a little time it has become easier for me to appreciate Dave’s adoption of his Italian persona, particularly as it plays into the deception of Katarina (Robin Douglass), his would-be amore, as less a comic conceit and more of an expression of his own insecurity and desperation. (And it is a little creepy too, which is, I’m sure, how his dad sees it.) And now that I’m a grownup it’s easier to identify with the frustrations Mr. Stoller must feel about the avenues not taken during his life, about not being able to continue doing what he feels he did best to provide for his family, about how even that trade—stonecutting-- has become increasingly irrelevant now that all the space for new buildings, not to mention rocks in the quarries, have been used to build places like the local university, places built for people other than people like himself.
But now I also see the younger and the older Stoller at the end of Breaking Away and I’m reminded of something else. Seventeen years ago today my wife and I lost our son Charlie, and perhaps it’s this hole in my heart, which will never be filled, that speaks up most profoundly to me when I watch the movie today. It’s because Tesich and Yates, and Dooley and Christopher, have crafted such a believable and moving portrait of a father and a son, in conflict and in togetherness, that I continue to take from the movie an understanding of the way a young man—myself-- feels his way into the world, and the way a distant father—my own dad, maybe?-- feels his way toward his son. But I also see faint echoes of my own life, the one not taken (or allowed), as a father to a son who likely would have wanted to go his own way as well, and a glimpse at some of the ways I could have risen to the occasion, or fallen beneath it. The memory of Charlie echoes in my soul constantly, never more so than on this day, of course, but also strongly whenever I encounter a truthful and uncompromising portrait of a father and son relationship on screen. It’s what I’m hoping for from Boyhood. But until I see that, Charlie and I will always have Breaking Away.