Breaking Away

Home late on Saturday night I settled in on the couch, browsed through my movie directory, then found the perfect late, home from being out movie: Breaking Away.

I guess this is now an older movie, though I remember sort of roughly when it came out – around 1980? I reckon I’ve watched it 3-4 times over the years and responded to it every time. It’s a coming of age story about a cycling obsessed teenager and his mates. It has all the usual elements, a bit of romance, a town in transition and conflict between the two sides of the track, and finally the triumphant ending. It’s probably because it’s so familiar, and ‘known’, that I find myself responding to it so well.

It’s a well-worn trope, but it’s a trope that most of us in western democracies have lived some variation of. You watch such a movie with a combination of nostalgia and sentimentality, if not a mild sense of regret that such days of carefree innocence, when the beckoning promised to unfold before you and nothing was impossible, are gone, a part of the past. If only we’d known better at the time.

This time, it’s a particularly well-done piece of film making. Peter Yates was the director. He was the director of one of my favourite ever movies, Bullitt, but other accomplished works like The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Eyewitness. He has a sure hand, but the movie belongs to the writer, Steve Tesich.

Years ago I read one of the few novels he wrote, Summer Crossing, about a boy living on the wrong side of the tracks meeting up with a mysterious and alluring newcomer to town. It’s sweet and romantic in places, but ultimately tragic. I read it soon enough after living through that stage of my life that it felt particularly real. I knew what it was like to fall hard for a girl. I knew the sense of budding adulthood and straining at the leash. I knew the feeling of being safe in the family home but rebelling against the strictures of it. I knew what it was like to be a part of a close-knit group of friends sharing every moment. And I knew the feeling of unbounding curiosity, as if I couldn’t get enough of life and experience.

It seems likely to me that Steve Tesich wrote from rich experience. Though they have different stories, the themes of Breaking Away and Summer Crossing are not dissimilar.

I half expected on Saturday to grow bored halfway through, as if I might have outgrown the movie. Sadly, it happens. Old favourites, books as well as movies, often seem pale imitations of what I knew and experienced of them when they made their formative impression. I think that’s a great example of how your circumstances inform your impression of things. Things that resonated me back then because I could relate could feel, lose their lustre over time when I have moved on to a different plane of existence.

Fortunately, I watched to the end on Saturday, lured on by memory and genuine entertainment. This is a quality movie that everyone should watch. A classic, dare I say.

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