Here at last is a youth picture without sleaze (Risky Business), a condescending view of adults (Porky's), or a cliche-ridden storyline (Spring Break). The setting is a small northern California town in 1942. Hopper (Sean Penn) and Nicky (Nicolas Cage) have six weeks until they enlist in the Marines. Friends since childhood, they are apprehensive about the future and determined to make the most of their remaining liberty as civilians.

Hopper is attracted to Caddie (Elizabeth McGovern), who works as a movie house cashier and lives in a country mansion. He assumes she is a "Gatsby girl" and courts her timidly. Nicky's girlfriend (Suzanne Adkinson) is pregnant, and he wants her to get an abortion. His callous treatment of her is effectively counterpointed by Hopper's subtle wooing of Caddie on several dates, including a nicely orchestrated idyll in the countryside.

Richard Benjamin (My Favorite Year) directs Racing With the Moon slowly and tenderly, paying special attention to character development. Hopper and Nicky try to recapture their childhood by jumping a train; they are outwitted by some pool sharks in an attempt to raise money for Sally's abortion; and they are compelled to think about death when a local boy killed overseas is buried.

Sean Penn and Elizabeth McGovern vividly convey the charm, mystery and tentativeness of first love. Hopper's father (John Karlen), a gravedigger, is always there to give his son support, whether the subject is fear of the future, romance, or friendship under stress. Racing With the Moon, beautifully photographed by John Bailey and evocatively written by Steven Kloves, is a small movie with abundant emotional riches.