Breaking Away Movie Essay Template

HomeStart HereScreenwritingCheat SheetFilm Analysis

Breaking Away is one of the best movies ever made. Bar none. If I had to make a Top-100 Films of All Time List, it would easily make the cut. It’s such a shame that it’s not really recognized as such outside of film-circles.

Not that the film was overlooked by any means, it did still win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Musical or Comedy). But that still only accounted for $20 million in box-office receipts. Shame, such a wonderful film.

Dave gives university a shot - and now idolizes the French cycling team and pretends to be French.


Dave and his friends are townies living in a mid-west college town. They wile away their days at the old rock quarry and get into altercations with the rich, college kids.

Dave idolizes the Italian cycling team so much that he’s convinced himself he’s Italian, much to his father’s continual consternation.

Dave and his buddies are forced to defend the town’s honour in the big intramural bicycle race at the university. But, pretty soon, it’s only up to Dave...

The college kids show up, encroaching on their territory!

Once the college kids show up, it’s us vs. them. Cutters vs. college kids. Townies vs. out-of-townies.

Meet-Cute: Running over her frisbee - then chasing her down to return the dropped notebook.

Love-story: He’s lying to her (he’s pretending to be Italian, when he’s not). Love-stories almost always have one character (the man) lying to the other about something. The woman typically finds out at the love-story’s second-turning point and they break up. It’s now up to the protagonist to make amends (rushing to the airport and professing his love in a gigantic scene, for instance).

Character-Arc: He’s not Italian. He’s embarrassed by where he’s from and dreams of being from somewhere else.

The first scene of Breaking Away is a master-work. Just look at all it accomplishes:

  • Introduces all the main characters, teaches us a little bit about each one
  • It’s the end of summer, they now have to go on with their lives, get jobs, etc…
  • Dave speaks fake-Italian for some reason
  • Dave is a champion cyclist
  • Mike is the leader
  • Cyril is the poet, the funny one
  • Moocher is the little guy with the Napoleon complex who’s seeing a girl, but lying about it (his sub-plot / love-story)
  • Dave idolizes the Italian cycling team

Just one little scene (while the credits roll) and the audience knows everything about these guys. We know they’ve been friends forever. It’s like we’re part of their group of friends. After only one short scene (behind the credits).

The inciting-incident (of Dave’s character-arc) is his Father complaining about him.

The Italians come to town - and Dave can not only compete with them, but he might actually win!

And then they cheat… (66min)

This destroys everything Dave believes. Everything he holds dear. It turns his entire world upside-down. It completely destroys him.

His heroes are actually bad guys. He’s been deluding himself for years.

Notice how the setting changes:  We go from the streets - to the big bicycle race.

Notice how the stakes rise tremendously:  Dave’s honour, as well as that of his friends and the entire town, ride on his shoulders now.


Dave is broken. Defeated. Completely.

Whenever you have a false-defeat at the second turning-point, there’s usually an actual-victory at the climax.

Original movie posters from the film

Home is where the heart is. Honesty is the best policy. Sort of...

Dave learns to not be embarrassed by where he’s from, his hometown, and all the local cutters.

Overcoming this character-flaw is what allows him to enter the race and ultimately win. If he was still embarrassed by being a cutter - he would never in a million years get up in front of thousands of people wearing a CUTTERS shirt. He learns to be proud of who he is and where he is from. And, that allows him to ultimately win and prove his worth. Of course, he chooses not to change at the very end (by faking French).

The Italians are coming! The Italians are coming! (23min)

Dave now has a goal - to show that he can compete with the Italians, the best cyclists on Earth.

Notice how the setting changes:  Quarry and the college in the first act to streets in the second.

Notice how the stakes rise tremendously: Dave goes from the small-time to the big-time.

Rising action: the chase behind the semi-tractor-trailer.

Breaking Away has a unique story-structure. The first turning-point isn’t really the first turning point. The movie isn’t about Dave’s battle with the Italians, it’s about his battle with the college kids. The real first turning-point is actually the inciting-incident (when the college kids arrive and chase them away from the quarry). That’s when the setting changes (quarry to college). That’s when Dave gets his quest (beat the college kids).

An IdeaStudio FormatThe ProtagonistStory StructureThemeCharacter-ArcSub-PlotsThe Quest!GenreOn-Set IssuesScreenwriting DegreesFilm SchoolsNo Writing YetScreenwriting Software

The First ActThe SettingIntroductionsThe ProtagonistThe Inciting IncidentThe ThemeThe Meet-CuteThe Supporting CastExpositionThe First Turning-PointThe Second ActRising ActionThe Love StoryScreenplay Page CountsEverything is Looking Good!...False-Victory or False-DefeatBackstoryThe Roller-CoasterThe Pit of DespairThe Second Turning PointThe Third ActAll Is Not LostBig Action!The Character-ArcWind It All UpWrapping Up Your Sub-PlotsThe Final BattleThe ClimaxDenouementScript Coverage

Actually Writing Your Script

Back to the FutureBreaking AwayFantastic Beasts and Where to Find ThemThe GameInterstellarSouthpawT2 - Terminator 2Tombstone

"Breaking Away" is a wonderfully sunny, funny, goofy, intelligent movie that makes you feel about as good as any movie in a long time. It is, in fact, a treasure -- which is why it's in half as many theaters as trash like "Bloodline." Exhibitors are scared to death of offbeat, original movies; they'll play it safe with sleaze every time. But audiences are discovering "Breaking Away" (the studio has been sneak-previewing it for months), and they love it.

No wonder. In a summer of big-budget movies that are insults to the intelligence, here's a little film about coming of age in Bloomington, Ind. It's about four local kids, just out of high school, who mess around for one final summer before facing the inexorable choices of jobs or college or the Army. One of the kids, Dave (Dennis Christopher), has it in his head that he wants to be a champion Italian bicycle racer, and he drives his father crazy with opera records and ersatz Italian.


His friends have more reasonable ambitions: One (Dennis Quaid) was a high school football star who pretends he doesn't want to play college ball, but he does; another (Jackie Earle Haley) is a short kid who pretends he doesn't want to be taller, but he does; and another (Daniel Stern) is one of those kids like we all knew, who learned how to talk by crossing Eric Severaid with Woody Allen.

There's the usual town-and-gown tension in Bloomington, between the jocks and the townies (who are known, in Bloomington, as "cutters" -- so called after the workers in the area's limestone quarries). There's also a poignant kind of tension between local guys and college girls: Will a sorority girl be seen with a cutter? Dave finds out by falling hopelessly in love with a college girl named Kathy (Robyn Douglass), and somehow, insanely, convincing her he's actually an Italian exchange student.

The whole business of Dave's Italomania provides the movie's funniest running joke: Dave's father (Paul Dooley) rants and raves that he didn't raise his boy to be an Eye-talian, and that he's sick and tired of all the ee-neesin the house: linguini, fettucini . . . even Jake, the dog, which Dave has renamed Fellini. The performances by Dooley and Barbara Barrie as Dave's parents are so loving and funny at the same time that we remember, almost with a shock, that every movie doesn't have to have parents and kids who don't get along.

The movie was directed as a work of love by Peter Yates, whose big commercial hits have included "Bullitt" and "The Deep." It was written by Steve Tesich, who was born in Yugoslavia, was moved to Bloomington at the age of 13, won the Little 500 bicycle race there in 1962, and uses it for the film's climax. Yates has gone for the human elements in "Breaking Away," but he hasn't forgotten how to direct action, and there's a bravura sequence in which Dave, on a racing bicycle, engages in a high-speed highway duel with a semitrailer truck.


In this scene, and in scenes involving swimming in an abandoned quarry, Yates' does a tricky and intriguing thing: He suggests the constant possibility of sudden tragedy. We wait for a terrible accident to happen, and none does, but the hints of one make the characters seem curiously vulnerable, and their lives more precious.

The whole movie, indeed, is a delicate balancing act of its various tones: This movie could have been impossible to direct, but Yates has us on his side almost immediately. Some scenes edge into fantasy, others are straightforward character development, some (like the high school quarterback's monolog about his probable future) are heartbreakingly true. But the movie always returns to light comedy, to romance; to a wonderfully evocative instant nostalgia.

"Breaking Away" is a movie to embrace. It's about people who are complicated but decent, who are optimists but see things realistically, who are fundamentally comic characters but have three full dimensions. It's about a Middle America we rarely see in the movies, yes, but it's not corny and it doesn't condescend. Movies like this are hardly ever made at all; when they're made this well, they're precious cinematic miracles.

Reveal Commentscomments powered by


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *