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Psychological Issues in the “Breaking Away” Movie


Breaking Away is a light comedy with Dennis Christopher and Paul Dooley in the leading roles. It was directed by Peter Yates and released in 1979. The movie presents a story of four high-school graduates each of them having separate interests and none of them having desire to further their educational achievements. Apart from being entertaining, as it belongs to the genre of comedy, the movie is educational and raises a number of problems which are typical for adolescents. The first problem is one of the most important problems of all ages which is the generation gap. The problem finds its realization in the Dave and his friends’ conflicts with their parents. There is no wonder that such conflicts take place as after graduating from school the four young men do not plan to continue their studies choosing instead hanging out for a year enjoying their lives to a full extent. Another problem is observed in the interaction of college students from rich families with those who come from small towns. Touching of this problem is very important since it reveals how young people from middle class families feel about college in general. It reveals such children’s concerns about how they would be accepted in different society and whether they would be accepted at all. And finally, the movie discloses the problem of choice connected with higher education. This period is without any doubt one of the most difficult for future college students as their entire life depends on it. All these problems can be analyzed in accordance with some of the stages of personality development worked out by the psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson.

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First of all, it is necessary to provide certain background about Erikson’s theory before analyzing the movie. Erik Erikson is known for devising the theory on social development of human individuals. Unlike Sigmund Freud who sorted out five stages of development, namely oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital stage, Erik Erikson worked out the stages from a slightly different perspective and, according to him, there are eight of them. Erikson states “that there are universal life stages and that a specific psychological dilemma occurs at each phase of development” (Cliff Notes, Theo Sonderegger, p. 114). Here it should be mentioned that before passing to another stage of development it is necessary for the individual to cope with all problems and dilemmas he or she is facing at the present stage as “one stage of development builds on the successes of previous stages” (Roberta Rubin Greene, p. 79). Erik Erikson’s stages include basic trust versus basic mistrust which covers the period of time from birth to one year, autonomy versus shame which lasts from two till three years, initiative versus guilt which is the period from three to five years, industry versus inferiority dealing with period from six to eleven, identity versus identity confusion which is adolescence, intimacy versus isolation which is young adulthood, generativity versus stagnation occurring in the middle age and integrity versus despair which takes place in old age. Namely the fifth stage, the stage of adolescence, is what the movie Breaking Away deals with.

The stage of adolescence is the most difficult and problematic for the development of any identity and “Breaking Away” is a perfect example for this. Adolescence covers the period of time from twelve to twenty two years, the period which abounds with the most divergent events starting from first love and ending up with making the most serious choices. Passing this stage by an individual gives a fair justification for the problem of generation gap raised in the movie. Dave and his friends are in disagreement with their parents because the stage of adolescence “involves the establishment of personal identity, autonomy from parents (Roberta Rubin Greene, p. 84). It’s but natural that they object to their parents as it is a part of their identity formation. The problem of choosing a right educational establishment deals with “commitment to a career” (Roberta Rubin Greene, p. 84) which also characterizes the identity crisis which takes place in the period of adolescence. Most of parents have powers to cope with this problem and to help their children make choice. This should be just a mere assistance rather than imposition of what namely parents want. An important stage of the period of adolescence is “acceptance of one’s sexual preference” (Roberta Rubin Greene, p. 84). The way Dave from Breaking Away is coming through this stage is shown through his relationships with Katherine, their breaking up and Dave’s serenading Katherine. And, finally, the fact that the adolescents “want to go to the limit of experience before they fit themselves into their culture and fit their culture to themselves” (Richard I. Evans, Erik Erikson, p. 38) accounts for the reason why students from upper class and middle class families may have conflicts at college as well as it explains the fight which occurred between Dave and his friends with Mike and some other fraternity students. This fight later developed into a competition during the bicycle race which can be explained by the adolescents’ striving for leadership. Here it also should be noted that one of the four movie characters was actually starting to pass to the sixth stage acquiring the ability to “enter into adult relationships and roles” (Roberta Rubin Greene, p. 86). This concerns Moocher who tells his friends about his intention to get married and afterwards to move to Chicago in search of a job.


All in all, the movie Breaking Away contains aspects that are worth analyzing taking into consideration the stages of personality development worked out by Erik Erikson. Of greatest significance is the fifth stage which is the period of adolescence since most of the characters of the movie come through this stage facing a number of difficulties. Most of the problems the characters encounter can be explained from the point of view of psychology, for instance the conflicts between adolescents and their parents, the difficulty of choices standing before high-school graduates and conflicts arising between the peers. The formulation of identity is a very complicated process and each person has to go through it. The support and understanding of people who surround the adolescents are very important for them since at this period their trust in people is limited. Dave got this support from his parents who used right methods of upbringing, for example, his mother who knowing about the son’s passion for everything Italian used to play one of his favorite Italian songs to set him in the right mood. In general, adolescents have a lot to learn from the movie Breaking Away as it is informative and educational and presents a true picture of what the young people experience at this stage of their identity formation.

Works Cited

  1. Richard I. Evans, Erik Erikson. Dialogue with Erik Erikson. Harper & Row, 1967.
  2. Cliffs Notes, Theo Sonderegger. Psychology. Wiley_Default, 1998.
  3. Roberta Rubin Greene. Human Behavior Theory: A Diversity Framework. Aldine Transaction, 1994.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, October 26). Psychological Issues in the “Breaking Away” Movie.

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"Psychological Issues in the “Breaking Away” Movie." StudyCorgi, 26 Oct. 2021,

1. StudyCorgi. "Psychological Issues in the “Breaking Away” Movie." October 26, 2021.


StudyCorgi. "Psychological Issues in the “Breaking Away” Movie." October 26, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Psychological Issues in the “Breaking Away” Movie." October 26, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Psychological Issues in the “Breaking Away” Movie'. 26 October.

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