It is December 1942 in this northern Californian town, and teenager Henry Nash (Sean Penn) is expecting to be called up for the marines early the next year as he has finished school and now is simply waiting through a job at a bowling alley until he is shipped out to the military. But before he has to concern himself with the war raging abroad, he has other things to worry about; not so much his parents who want him to pursue a career as a concert pianist, he has the talent for it after all, but more about that girl he has seen about town. He thinks Caddie (Elizabeth McGovern) is a rich kid from one of the town's mansions, but the reality is different...
Maybe even more than the nineteen-fifties, the eighties discovered the teenager, or rediscovered them perhaps, with a host of movies desgined to appeal to that market as the younger generation began to make up most of the target audience for Hollywood. Racing with the Moon tried to have it both ways, however, presenting itself as both classy period drama and an item that would appeal to the youngsters into the bargain, but really those most likely to enjoy it were not the viewers who had lived through the Second World War, but more those who wished to lose themselves in a starry-eyed romance for an hour and three quarters.
Director Richard Benjamin was only too happy to oblige, working from a script by future director and Harry Potter franchise co-writer Steve Kloves which aimed for insight into the whole right side of the tracks-wrong side of the tracks relationship but actually ended up with a hackneyed collection of plot contrivances. There were some aspects you could not fault, though, as an authentic look to the drama was very much in its favour, with all parts of the production design, costuming, cinematography and so on very professional and evocative of the era of the home front in America. There was little to fault in the performances either, with Penn in the James Dean role and evidently relishing it.
McGovern too was entirely convincing as Henry's object of desire, yet the problem here was not the cast, it was the plot they were required to perform. There was one surprise in the whole thing, and that is given away to the audience early on when we discover that Caddie lives in a mansion not because she is a so-called Gatsby Girl (the nickname the locals have for the daughters of the rich living nearby), but because her mother is a maid there. She's not wealthy at all, which leads to a misunderstanding that could have been cleared up in seconds and not erupted into the complicated situation it does, but if it had been, well, there goes the plot. It's a pity, as Penn and McGovern worked very well together.
This in spite of the fact that Henry is an unsympathetic character who only seems like a better guy than he is because his best friend is the dunderheaded cad Nicky (Nicolas Cage), who would make anyone look decent in comparison. OK, not anyone, but he's clearly there to make Henry see the error of treating people badly when Nicky gets his casual girlfriend pregnant and struggles to come up with the cash for an abortion, not that he's especially bothered about her one way or the other, he just doesn't want that kind of complexity in his life. Such lowjinks as trying to win the money in a crooked pool game ensue, making you yearn for the relative simplicity of the wandering through the forest and going skinny-dipping sequence, and by the time Henry and Nicky are being carted off to war, the intended poignancy has failed to arise. It's all too studied and never feels spontaneous enough to hit its emotional targets. Music by Dave Grusin.