Movie News & Reviews

'Breaking Away' an insightful fable for fathers and sons

From left, Jackie Earle Haley, Daniel Stern, Dennis Christopher and Dennis Quaid play townies in ‘Breaking Away.’
From left, Jackie Earle Haley, Daniel Stern, Dennis Christopher and Dennis Quaid play townies in ‘Breaking Away.’

My father only took me to the movies one time — and it wasn’t because he felt the need to bond with his son.

We had visited my grandmother’s house in Bloomington, Ind., numerous times, and since “Breaking Away” had been filmed in Bloomington, my dad wanted to see how the university town looked on the big screen.

If we talked about the movie afterward, the conversation wasn’t memorable — which is appropriate, given that the father in “Breaking Away” has difficulty connecting with his fictional son.

Of course, that’s true of many father-son relationships, said Paul Dooley, who played dad Ray Stoller in “Breaking Away.”

“I recognized my own father so much (in the script), that I just played him,” Dooley said.

Dooley and Dennis Christopher, who played Dooley’s onscreen son in the film, will appear at a screening of the coming-of-age film Saturday in San Luis Obispo. The event is a fundraiser for the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.

“Breaking Away,” which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, was a sleeper hit, winning the Academy Award for best original screenplay and spawning several successful careers.  While the movie ranks among the best sports movies ever made, it’s also a film about serious themes including class conflict and challenging relationships.

Made on a shoestring budget of $2.4 million, the movie featured a stellar cast of then-unknown actors, including Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Jackie Earle Haley and Barbara Barrie, a script written by playwright Steve Tesich, and a director, Peter Yates, who had worked with Steve McQueen, Robert Redford and Bill Cosby.

During his long career, Dooley said “Breaking Away” is one of four or five films that really stands out.

“It’s the only great one I ever made,” he said.

The movie follows four recent high school graduates in a working-class southern Indiana town that is also home to Indiana University. One of them, Dave Stoller (Christopher), is a bicycling enthusiast who wants to compete in the Little 500, a race between university fraternities, and recruits his friends to join him.

While the townies clash with their college foes, the movie explores the relationships between the friends and between Dave Stoller and his father.

“It’s the simple, basic, ‘I’ve got to split from my parents, and I’ve got to find my own way’ (story),” Christopher said. 

While Ray Stoller is a former limestone cutter-turned car salesman, his son has loftier goals — and a strange affinity for all things Italian. And although Ray clearly loves Dave, his old-fashioned personality makes it difficult for him to show it.  

Back then, Dooley said, it wasn’t uncommon for fathers to leave the child-rearing duties to their wives.

“They thought their job was to work and bring home the check,” he said, adding that his own father had difficulty expressing affection.

Christopher also related to the film’s father-son conflict, having been emancipated from his father as a teen, not long after his mother passed away.

“I left home when I was 17,” said Christopher, who has portrayed Dooley’s son onscreen multiple times. “It was a way difficult situation, and I had to get out of there as soon as I could.”

Just as the father-son dynamic presents one of the film’s conflicts, so does Bloomington, where townies and college students live together in a strained relationship.

As the four friends struggle to decide how their futures will play out, Dave Stoller eventually decides to become one of “them” — a student at Indiana University.  

Initially, the blue-collar kid is almost embarrassed to go to college. But in one of the film’s finer moments, Ray Stoller tells his son it’s OK to choose a different path than he did.

Tesich was an Indiana University graduate who well understood the tensions between Bloomington locals and university students. 

I too would understand after my mother and I moved to Bloomington, two years after “Breaking Away” opened — and I’d understand that tension even more a few years later, when I began attending Indiana University as my friends joined the workforce.

Like Bobby Knight and John Mellencamp, “Breaking Away” remains an integral part of Bloomington’s culture, both for students and townies.

“Back in Bloomington, ‘Breaking Away’ is like ‘Citizen Kane,’” Dooley said.

Having lived in Bloomington for 18 years, I often wondered if Dooley had spent much time in the town because his character — an emotionally distant but somehow lovable curmudgeon — was so much like many Hoosier fathers I’d met.

Dooley arrived in town a few days before shooting “Breaking Away” to get a feel for the local dialect. “But I decided it was very similar to the dialect where I was from,” the West Virginia native said. 

The rest of the character was drawn from his father and others like him. While Dooley’s paternal role in “Sixteeen Candles” has inspired strangers to say, “I wish I had a father like that,” he knows that in real life, some fathers never open up to their kids.

“People go to their fathers on their death beds and (the fathers) never say ‘I love you,’ ” Dooley said.

“California Dreaming,” another movie starring Christopher, came out the same year as “Breaking Away.” That movie was shot in Avila Beach, the last place I saw my father alive. 

While that visit ended badly, a recent re-viewing of “Breaking Away” gave me a chance talk to my 10-year-old daughter about the movie’s themes — something my father and I had failed to do years before.

While you can break away from your hometown or your parents, I told her, breaking away from tradition might be more important — and more difficult.

Dooley, a father of four, said he thinks he’s been more involved than his own dad — and more affectionate than Ray Stoller.  

But, of course, no one’s perfect.

“I probably couldn’t hold up as well as the guy in ‘Sixteen Candles,’” he said.

If you go

‘Breaking Away’

7 p.m. Saturday

Fremont Theatre, 1035 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo

$10 to $12, 13 to $15 at the door

546-3456 or