A colleague of mine leant me his DVD of RACING WITH THE MOON quite some time ago and I still hadn’t popped the thing into the player. Must have been all those SIMPSONS reruns I was watching. Whatever it was, I figured the time had come to check it out.
Richard Benjamin’s directorial followup to MY FAVORITE YEAR, the 1984 RACING is most notable for the early look it gives at future stars when they were still somewhat raw. Set in 1942-43, it’s an early starring role for Sean Penn, playing seventeen year-old Henry 'Hopper' Nash in a small Northern California coastal town. Weeks away from reporting for duty with the Marines, he spends time working at the local bowling alley with his best friend Nicky (Nicolas Cage), who is also about to head off to war. Bored, he takes an interest in a girl named Caddie (Elizabeth McGovern) who, though she works at the local movie theater, apparently lives in a large mansion and therefore must be a “Gatsby”, their slang for the rich people in town. Hopper and Caddie grow close very fast, but she avoids telling him the truth about her situation.
When Penn and McGovern are walking in the woods looking for something in one scene they come across an arrow directional arrow which offers no help and she says, “It’s gotta be that way, that way or that way,” and Penn replies, “Or somewhere in between.” With nothing left to look forward to in this town and an unknown future lying after that, Penn’s Hopper finds himself somewhere in between as well. Even the car radio heard in one scene which is turned from news reports on the warfront straight to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and the entire movie could be described as lying somewhere between those two basic ideas of the time it is set in as well. Instead, it chooses a more relaxed approach which takes allows us to take our time getting to know the characters so we are able to accept them for who they are, even with their faults. It’s interesting that Benjamin’s second film goes ten years back from the fifties of MY FAVORITE YEAR and doesn’t share any of the heightened tone that film has. Of course, that approach wouldn’t fit in this case and it’s refreshing to see a film set in the forties that presents things so naturally, not in any deliberate ‘forties’ style. The simple tone can’t be compared to the tragedy of other end-of-youth pieces like, say, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and because of that the ending doesn’t quite resonate in any tremendous way but the film is ultimately too likable and sweet to criticize very heavily.
It’s also a very special film because it allows us to see these leads before they became too fixed into what their screen personas became. I’m not sure Penn was ever this likable, relaxed and natural at any other time on screen before or after. It’s his movie, but Cage is very good as well, with next to none of the mannerisms he’d be known for in just a few short years. He also looks weirdly like a missing Baldwin brother in a few shots. Elizabeth McGovern, not always one of my favorites, turns out to be touching and just right as the girl Penn loves. In one of those strange quirks which somehow causes one film to blend into the other, McGovern is introduced practicing ballet by herself, twirling in a circle as Penn gazes at her from afar unnoticed. It’s oddly similar to ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA when the young version of De Niro (hang on, isn’t Sean Penn the young De Niro?) gazes at the twirling Jennifer Connelly who would, of course, grow up in the movie to become Elizabeth McGovern.
Much of the film is a three-character piece, but also spotted in small roles are people like Crispin Glover as a local rich jerk, Carol Kane in an enjoyable cameo as a hooker and, most surprisingly, a terrific bit with a young Michael Madsen as a crippled soldier home from the war. It barely lasts two minutes and Madsen almost steals the movie.
The film’s conclusion might not be as emotionally strong as it should be, but maybe that isn’t necessary. The characters, after all, are still growing up and it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t have them register what a crucial turning point in their lives this time is. That’s the sort of thing that people realize later on in life as events of the past gain in stature and I have the feeling that’s exactly what RACING WITH THE MOON is going to do as well.
Now if you’ll excuse me, there's a DVD that I have to return.