It’s six weeks before they ship out. Then it’s a month. Then it’s only a fortnight. Suddenly, the day has arrived, along with the train — an “old friend” that “would never hurt” them — which waits at the station to take Henry “Hopper” Nash (Sean Penn) and Nicky (Nicolas Cage) off to war.

Racing with the Moon is about the inevitable and the unforeseeable, set against the promise of young love, the picturesque California coast, and an era ripe for nostalgia seen without the rose-tinted glasses.

Henry and Nicky work as pinsetters at a local bowling alley in the small town of Point Muir, California, in 1942. From a working-class background and en route in the same economic state in which they’ve been raised, they’re unashamed of their work but will give hell to the “Gatsbys,” the upper-class, if they’re pushed.

They don’t think about the future here, because all that it entails for them is a trip toward Germany or Japan. After that, he promises Henry and — more importantly — himself, Nicky says he’ll never come back. Henry doesn’t even voice anything about possibilities after he leaves, but he does stand off to the side, silently watching as they bury a local boy who died on Guadalcanal.

His attitude changes when he meets Caddie (Elizabeth McGovern), who practices ballet by a coastal cliff and works at the box office of the local movie house. He leaves flowers for her on the counter, follows her home to a house that promises wealth, and finally finds the nerve to talk to her. They go out a few times, and neither wants to bring up her apparent affluence. Caddie doesn’t because she’s not actually rich (her mother is a maid in the house) and doesn’t realize for a long time that Henry thinks she is.

There are far more pressing issues than money at play for the two young lovebirds, mainly that Henry will be leaving soon. It is not a question; it is a certainty. Director Richard Benjamin plays the most innocently romantic moments with the slightest tinge of melancholy, whether it’s Dave Grusin’s minor-key piano score or cinematographer John Bailey’s big-picture sense of isolation.

In the middle of their first, sweetly disastrous roller-skating date, Benjamin’s camera stops at different points around the rink, observing young men in uniform and their best girl at their side. It is not the same as a funeral, but it is, to a degree, the impending death of a potential life. Neither Henry nor Caddie wants to admit it to themselves or the other, but they are a piece of that picture.

Time keeps moving, like the steam locomotive Henry and Nicky once raced in front of as kids and do so again one drunken night, and reality comes closer. The boys play a joke on a nursing practice (future soldiers covered in fake blood, labeled as dead or injured, and young women trying to “treat” them), and Caddie brings Henry to a veteran’s hospital where she volunteers to show him the results of war (a young soldier (Michael Madsen) who looks much older and lost a leg tries to impart how quickly he’ll grow up over there). Nicky begs Henry to help him raise money for an abortion for his girlfriend (Suzanne Adkinson), and her pleas to Nicky not to leave her alone remind Henry of exactly what he’ll be doing to Caddie.

Racing with the Moon ends at the only logical point, with Henry and Nicky on their way. There is no explanation of what happens to them, only the understanding that they are leaving more than loved ones behind. It is an entire life, never to be realized the way it could have been.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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