Racing With the Moon

Racing With the Moon
Director: Richard Benjamin
Screenplay: Steven Kloves
Stars: Sean Penn (Henry “Hopper” Nash), Elizabeth McGovern (Caddie Winger), Nicolas Cage (Nicky), John Karlen (Mr. Nash), Rutanya Alda (Mrs. Nash), Suzanne Adkinson (Sally Kaiser), Shawn Schepps (Gretchen), Crispin Glover (Gatsby Boy)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1984
Country: U.S.
Racing With the Moon DVD
Starring in Racing With the Moon marked a major shift for Sean Penn, who was coming off roles as a juvenile delinquent prison inmate in 1983’s Bad Boys and everyone’s favorite blissed-out stoner Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). In Racing With the Moon, Richard Benjamin’s nostalgic ode to young love blossoming beneath the crushing specter of war, Penn displayed a deep sensitivity he hadn’t shown before, one that was just barely masked behind his character’s façade of tough-guy signifiers—smoking, hustling pool games, skipping class. It was the first true sign of Penn’s amazing range as an actor.

The story is set in a small town on the California coast in the winter of 1942, just as the U.S. draft is kicking into high gear for World War II. Penn plays 17-year-old Henry “Hopper” Nash, an ordinary blue-collar kid who is wiling away his last few months of freedom before he has to ship out overseas to fight. Henry is just dangerous enough to be interesting, but he maintains an air of genuine decency that mitigates his delinquency. He runs his straight-laced piano teacher out of the living room by ripping into a jazz romp in the middle of his lesson, but it’s done with a sense of adolescent fun that doesn’t mark him as trouble. However, his best friend since childhood, Nicky (Nicolas Cage), is trouble. Where Henry wants to find love and contentment before shipping overseas, Nicky just wants to have sex, and the difference between the two is the difference between a dreamer and a cynic. In many ways, they are two sides of the same coin, something they don’t fully recognize until the final act.

Much of Racing With the Moon is about the romance that builds between Henry and Caddie (Elizabeth McGovern), who Henry mistakenly thinks is a rich girl—a “Gatsby.” Henry doesn’t care what Caddie’s economic situation is because he’s smitten with her the first time he sees her, and he eventually wins her over with his persistence and openness. Screenwriter Steven Kloves, now best known for adapting the Harry Potter novels to the screen, treats Henry and Caddie’s relationship with a gentle touch of idealism without ever letting it slide into sentimental fantasy.

In fact, Racing With the Moon is very firmly grounded in human realities, as Henry and Caddie’s bond is eventually tested by their involvement in Nicky’s having to pay for an abortion for his girlfriend, Sally (Suzanne Adkinson). There is something slightly moralistic about this subplot, though, as it’s hard not to read Nicky and Sally’s sex for sex’s sake as being punished with an unwanted pregnancy and potentially dangerous abortion, whereas Henry and Caddie’s sex for love is depicted in pastoral terms and has no such consequences. However, because the characters feel so true to life, they transcend any simplistic moral symbolism. That Kloves manages to find a way to reconcile all the characters in the end without it feeling hackneyed or trite is a testament to his skill as a screenwriter.

Director Richard Benjamin, a former actor who made his directorial debut with the 1982 comedy My Favorite Year, is clearly gifted in working with other actors, and he draws strong performances from his young cast. Penn manages to strike that perfect balance in depicting a teenager who wants to be bad but is really good at his core, while Cage turns Nicky into a dangerously charming lout whose redemption we can genuinely believe in. Elizabeth McGovern’s baby face and bright blue eyes go a long way toward conveying her character’s innocence, but she gives Caddie an edge by focusing on her intelligence and wit. At a time when girls were primarily objects to be pursued by lusty boys, her Caddie is always striving to be in control of her life, and when she and Henry finally get to the climactic moment when they exchange their poignant “I love you’s,” it is a heartfelt moment because it feels earned.

Racing With the Moon DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • English Dolby 1.0 Monaural
  • French Dolby 1.0 Monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by director Richard Benjamin
  • “The Story—The People” featurette
  • “The Making of Racing With the Moon” featurette
  • “The Race Goes On” featurette
  • DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
    Release DateNovember 30, 2004

    True to form, Paramount has given Racing With the Moon a solid anamorphic transfer that looks very good for a film that is now 20 years old. The image is clear and sharp, with good color saturation and realistic flesh tones.

    The original monaural soundtrack has been given the Dolby Digital 5.1 remix treatment to good effect. While the film is primarily dialogue, there are some good ambient sounds that are nicely divided up among the surround speakers, and the musical score is also given a boost.

    Considering the low $14.99 list price, this DVD has a good array of supplements. Director Richard Benjamin supplies a cogent, generally intriguing audio commentary. Much of what he discusses is also covered in three featurettes, which together form a roughly 45-minute retrospective documentary about the film’s production and reception. While a number of behind-the-scenes people make appearances, Elizabeth McGovern is the only actor to be interviewed.

    Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick

    All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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