Pete and Joey drive their 1960 Chevrolet Impala from their home on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia to Toronto with the hope of meeting up with their relatives in the city who might be able to help them find jobs; but their relatives hide from what they see as the pair's uncouth behaviour and the two are set adrift in the city. The men find minimum-wage jobs at a local ginger-ale bottler for $80 per week, much better pay than anything they could have found back home despite the tough working conditions. They fill their days smoking, drinking beer, and hitting on young women along Toronto's busy Yonge Street strip.
They soon turn their good fortune into residency in a small apartment, which they decorate with centerfolds from men's magazines and movie posters. Both men start romances; Joey decides to get married when his girlfriend, Betty (Jayne Eastwood), becomes pregnant. He pursues a credit-driven lifestyle undreamt of back home with his wife, buying a new colour television, stereo, and furniture on an installment plan.
Disaster strikes when Pete and Joey get laid off at the end of the summer and the trio are forced to move to a smaller, less-comfortable apartment. Pete and Joey find new jobs washing cars and resetting pins in a bowling alley but at much smaller wages than what they received at the bottling factory. Tensions mount at the crowded living situation and the lack of money begins to wear on them, and Betty tells Joey she will soon need to stop working at her waitressing job because of her pregnancy. Pete accuses Joey of not making enough money to support his share of the costs, and Betty resents Pete for making the accusation.
Unable to find steady work and with bills to pay and Joey and Betty's baby on the way, they resort to stealing food from a local supermarket. The caper results in a grocery clerk being assaulted by the pair when he tries to prevent the robbery. Pete and Joey return to their apartment in the morning to find Betty gone and their possessions on the street, after the police came in search of them and their landlord evicted them as troublemakers.
Broke, homeless, and with Betty staying with her aunt and uncle, the pair decide to pawn the rented colour TV set for money in order to make it out to the west coast. Pete convinces Joey that husbands leave their wives "all the time" and Joey agrees to leave Betty and her unborn child in Toronto. The film concludes much as it began, with Pete and Joey driving west in search of greener pastures.Doug McGrath as Peter McGraw
Paul Bradley as Joey Mayle
Jayne Eastwood as Betty
Cayle Chernin as Selina
Nicole Morin as Nicole
Pierre La Roche as 'Frenchie' La Roche
Don Steinhouse as Plant Co-worker
Ted Sugar as Plant Co-worker
Ron Martin as Plant Co-worker
The film reflected an important social phenomenon in post-war Canada as the economy of the eastern provinces stagnated and many young men sought opportunities in the fast-growing economy of Ontario. Although the men in the film come from Nova Scotia, the "Newfie" as an unsophisticated manual labourer was a common stereotype starting in the early 1950s as many Atlantic Canadians moved to the cities looking for work, only to find widespread unemployment and jobs that may have seemed to have attractive salaries, but made living in large cities marginal at best. Many of Toronto's early housing developments (particularly Regent Park) were built to handle the influx of internal immigrants before they were eventually replaced by external immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia starting in the 1960s.
The film is well known to Canadians and was parodied as Garth & Gord & Fiona & Alice in an episode of SCTV, with John Candy and Joe Flaherty as a Maritime lawyer and doctor (respectively) seeking a better life in Toronto after hearing about the job openings there. Eastwood reprised her role as the pregnant girlfriend, and Andrea Martin expanded the list of characters as a French-Canadian nuclear physicist who was also seeking better opportunities outside her native province of Quebec. As in the original, the men are entranced by the big city appeal of Yonge Street, a primary commercial thoroughfare in downtown Toronto. The parody ends on a happier note, with the characters leaving Toronto to seek better opportunities in Edmonton.
Many of the film's sequences were improvised on the spot. For example, the scene in Allan Gardens where Pete and Joey interact with some musical tramps: according to Donald Shebib, McGrath saw the men and called Shebib who hurried down with his camera and other cast members in tow. Shot on 16mm reversal stock, the near-documentary look of the movie impressed a number of critics who appreciated the film's honesty and its refusal to pander to the audience. Pete and Joey are not depicted as being punished for a moral failure, and there is no happy ending. The film builds on such works as The Grapes of Wrath but it puts the story into the present, and the story itself is not dated – the flight from rural to urban areas continues throughout the world today.
Quebec cinema also was influenced by the realistic look of Goin' Down the Road, and many successful Quebec films based on real life experiences were also critical and often commercial successes. Other Canadian filmmakers have also taken advantage of the cost savings that realism can mean to a production (such as shooting on less expensive film stock).
This film has been designated and preserved as a "masterwork" by the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada, a charitable non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the preservation of Canada’s audio-visual heritage. The Toronto International Film Festival ranked it in the Top 10 Canadian Films of All Time four times, in 1984, 1993, 2004 and 2015. In 2002, readers of Playback voted it the 5th greatest Canadian film of all-time.
The then up-and-coming singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn composed several songs for the film, including "Goin' Down the Road" and "Another Victim of the Rainbow". Cockburn refused to release the songs commercially because they represented the experiences of the movie's characters and not his own. Director Shebib was introduced to Cockburn, who was then playing in coffee houses in Toronto, by journalist Alison Gordon.
Shebib subsequently directed the 1981 film Heartaches, starring Margot Kidder, Annie Potts and Robert Carradine in a thematically similar story about two women.
In 2010, Shebib announced that a sequel film was in production. Down the Road Again was released in October 2011.