Every generation thinks it will be the last
As I prepare to graduate from Notre Dame. I find myself on a border, a sort of Rubicon, between my Nebraska past and my Ivy league, New York future. The 1979 film “Breaking Away” helped me come to a set of personal epiphanies, which I discuss in the following term paper:
The film Breaking Away was one of my favorite films of the semester, but its impact on me came as a complete surprise. As an older, low-budget film set in Indiana, it seemed certain to offer only typical indie quirkiness and sincerity. However, I found the film thematically poignant, well-written, and graced with excellent acting performances. It is one of the few coming-of-age stories that meets adolescents where they are, instead of transporting them to some idealized, fantastic, or preposterous scenario. I was most impressed with the timeless quality of the film’s themes, and I think it will continue to resonate with young adults for many years to come.
I expected the Bloomington setting to hold the film back, to somehow make it hopelessly parochial. I expected it to treat rural, small-town America with condescension at best or mockery at worst. Neither was the case. My assumptions were ill-founded. I thought the film really penetrated the heart of the working-class midwest, and I saw my uncles, grandfathers, and my high school friends in many of the characters.
I was concerned about the treatment of a medium-size midwestern college town because I am from one. I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, home of another Big Ten university, the University of Nebraska. Nebraska towns have been featured in films before, always as the backward, close-minded, dead-end communities that the coming-of-age youth must confront and transcend. However, the motivations and attitudes of people in such settings was respectfully and accurately portrayed in Breaking Free, which won it instant credibility in my eyes.
As I viewed the film, I realized that my concerns about the portrayal of what might as well have been my hometown were somewhat ironic. I realized that I may have grown up around the Lincoln equivalent of “cutters”, but that I had far more in common with the University brats. In fact, I realized I was probably even further removed from the working-class, “townies” than the college kids in the film. At the risk of sounding pompous, IU is no Notre Dame. Then I thought about the fact that I am going to Columbia Law next year. What right did I have to sympathize with the Cutters? What did I still have in common with them? It was an occasion for self-reflection and a startling realization: I “broke away” without even realizing it.
As I prepared to graduate from Notre Dame, I stand at a boundary, perhaps a sort of Rubicon, between my Nebraska past and my New York future. Breaking Away made me realize that my next step could cut me off from my roots completely (not including my family, of course). I realized that the film explored issues that I had sublimated, lest they cause me guilt. I realized I have uncles, cousins, grandparents, and childhood friends who were/are essentially the Nebraska version of the “Cutters.” Many of them didn’t go to college. If they did, they stayed close to home, taking a few years to quickly learn a trade, meet a girl, and start working and raising a family. The film made me wonder how they view me, the cousin/nephew/friend/brother who left Nebraska at 18 to study philosophy (of all things) at a University that charges $48k/yr, because I was lucky enough to receive extraordinary financial aid. Do I come off as a pompous, pretentious jerk when I mention enrolling in an Ivy League law school? Yes, probably. This film made me realize that I was feeling guilty about leaving my roots, and afraid to let them fade any further into the dust in my rearview mirror (even my metaphors are imbued with a distinctly Nebraskan aesthetic!).
Because of the guilt that this movie inspired, I found the ending incredibly rewarding. Dave doesn’t allow his guilt or fear to hold him back. He realizes his potential, and transcends his roots. However, he was only able to do so once he received the full support of his friends, his mother, and, most importantly, his father. Dave was unable to “break away” until his community imparted enough momentum for him to reach exit velocity. I realized that I didn’t need to feel guilty, because this is exactly what my family and friends wanted to do for me. They pushed me to do my best and realize my potential. If Notre Dame was my personal launchpad, my Nebraska community all but carried me there and strapped me in. When I think about all the support I received from my parents, siblings, grandparents, and friends in my first 18 years, I realize that the greatest insult to them would have been to squander even one ounce of my potential or their effort.
Dave was clearly a bright kid, probably far brighter than he ever feels comfortable letting on. More important than smarts, the kid was incredibly determined, self-motivated, and tenacious. His friends and his father initially seemed to resent his still-evident natural gifts, and this caused him to bury them. However, their love for Dave eventually demanded that he be proud of his abilities and put them to use. As difficult as it is for Dave to break away, the film’s most dramatic tale of transformation is in Dave’s friends and especially in his father. They go from jealously trying to hold Dave back with them, to pushing him into the Little 500 and the admissions office at IU. Perhaps this is the true heart of the story.
Even though the theme of the film was, somewhat obviously, “breaking away” from the small-town, working-class community, the film was fair to that community. It did an excellent job of showing why this feat can sometimes be very difficult, and explaining the very real allure of that lifestyle. Dave had a family in his friends. They relied on each other, took care of each other, and loved each other. They got to postpone adulthood, even suspend time, for a few years after high school, living a Huckleberry Finn lifestyle of swimming in quarries, hiking through forests, and chasing girls.
The film shows a huge gap between the idyllic lifestyle of the youths and the comparatively bleak lives of the middle-aged “cutters” they would eventually become themselves. Dave was comfortable playing Huckleberry Finn. It wasn’t until his father bridged the generation gap, showed him where his life was headed, and encouraged him to expect more of himself, that Dave realized he had to make a change. Childhood could not last forever, and he was not meant for the adulthood he was heading for.
Along with his love for his friends and family, Dave’s fear of failure seems to be the other lead anchor in his life. College is a frightening proposition because, unlike cycling, other kids do it and they succeed at it. In Indiana amateur cycling, Dave is a big fish in a very small pond, but, in college, he’s perfectly average, possibly even disadvantaged. Not only does it present a real possibility of failure, but it presents of possibility of failure that other people will look down upon. Nobody knows enough about Italian cycling to be disappointed in him for not winning the film’s first race, but they would know enough about college to chide him for dropping out. This effect also comes into play with Katherine, whom he attempts to woo by pretending to be an Italian exchange student. He lavishes her with affectionate Italian nicknames and exuberant midnight serenades, but betrays absolutely no vulnerability or sincerity in so doing. He is immune to failure or heartbreak because he puts no part of himself on the line for her.
This fear is hard to overcome. Coping with one’s sense of duty towards the family and community that raised you and cared for you is even harder. But this film is a true coming-of-age story because we see a boy slowly become a man, take responsibility for his own life, and take a leap of faith towards a better life. It is also a film about what it means to be a true friend and a true mentor: simply wanting the best for the other person. If this means the person eventually transcends their surroundings and their dependence on friends and mentors, this should be a cause for joy, not resentment. To love someone well is to let them go.
The film also shows us that, no matter how independent and self-reliant we are, we always owe more of our success to the foundation that our family and friends gave us than we think. While Dave makes huge personal strides as an individual, they were impossible without the encouragement of concerned parents and the safety and support of unconditional friendships. Dave’s journey of “breaking away” is a tale of individual achievement and growth, but also of the ways that communities care for themselves, even if this means sharing their best and brightest with the wider world.
I loved this movie because it was an opportunity to reflect on my hometown, on my family and friends, and on my own (admittedly young) life journey. The portrayal of small-town mores and attitudes was so accurately and sympathetically rendered, that I couldn’t help but hear the voices of friends and family members in the characters’ lines. This is a beautiful film, and one that I will certainly watch again. It may be that I come from a very narrow class of people who will find this movie so poignant, but that is the beauty of indie filmmaking: it doesn’t have to be intended for the lowest common denominators of society, it can be intended for a particular type of person, whose experiences film has never before bothered to explore. In many ways, then, Breaking Away is a film about me and for me, and, for that, I can’t help but love it.