Written by Hayden Claborn, Writer
We’ve all seen coming of age films, but Paul Thomas Anderson continuously surprises the audience with Licorice Pizza. The story takes our characters through Hollywood tall tales, which alongside beautiful cinematography makes for a uniquely joy-inspiring watch. Simply put: it’s his best film to date and one he’s seemingly been working towards for years.
The year is 1973 and 15 year old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is growing up in the San Fernando Valley making a living as a child actor. On school picture day he meets 25 year old Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and instantly is love struck. While Alana is resistant to the young man’s feelings at first, they soon develop a friendship that helps them both grow up just a bit more.
If you’re familiar with the work of Anderson, you may know him for his dark and complex dramas such as There Will Be Blood & The Master. While he has shown a more comedic side with Punch Drunk Love & Inherent Vice he’s never made a film this affectionate. There is darkness in Licorice Pizza’s California but it never overshadows the loveliness and optimism of the film.
A driving force of the plot is Gary’s business dealings. Being an actor simply isn’t enough and he starts up multiple companies– the sense is that Gary wants to be treated like a grown up. He adopts smoking cigarettes to prove his maturity but in doing so, he shows his childishness. In contrast, Alana has a hard time embracing adulthood. She’s at a place in her life where the future seems hazy– all of her sisters have accomplished so much and she can’t even hold down a boyfriend. Through Gary she forces herself to do some much needed growing up. In the relationship, Alana operates as Wendy and Gary as Peter Pan.
What makes Licorice Pizza so special is how much depth each character contains. I’ve seen the film twice now and I picked up on details I missed on the first go around on my second watch. These characters feel like real people and that includes the messiness of their lives. Stellar performances delivered by newcomers Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim drive home the lifelike nature of these characters. Both are destined to movie stardom judging by their debuts, and in Licorice Pizza, the two bounce off of each other effortlessly.
The picture has the sheen of dreamlike wonder that only really exists when one is young. One unforgettable image from the film is of Gary running along a line of cars waiting for the gas pump as David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” plays. The apocalyptic implications ring exciting. “The world is ending!” Gary enthusiastically screams. He doesn’t comprehend the context of that statement because for him context isn’t required. Being a teenager, for all of it’s pimple-filled horror, is wonderful because you can act like an adult without the consequences, such as losing your sense of unbridled awe. A shame, isn’t it?
Licorice Pizza is currently nominated for Three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.