By Ermioni Pavlidou,
Paul Thomas Anderson’s new coming-of-age comedy film is out in theatres, and it might just have saved 2022. After his historical drama Phantom Thread (2017), Anderson returns with a nostalgic narrative — even for those, myself included, who were not even born back then — exploring the parallel life of an unlikely yet everlasting relationship between an excited, impulsive, and innovative teen and the grounded girl he is infatuated with, who is not a teen anymore and tries to make a difference, while they figure themselves out. It poses the question of how to grow up even if you already have one. It depicts the 70s essence in San Fernando Valley, a place that is described by Anderson, a person who grew up there, visualized with captivating cinematography and heard through a groovy soundtrack as heaven on earth and what this time meant around — and for — cinema in a romanticized way, whilst not through a utopic display. It was written, directed, and produced by Paul Thomas Anderson and its cast consists of Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Tom Waits, Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie.
Figuring out the “growing up” part
The story begins in 1973, with the encounter of 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, who is his son of and the director’s favorite: Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic and charming former child actor, and Alana Kane (Alana Haim), a 25-year-old girl who tries to figure out what to do to escape the life she is afraid she will end up having. The two meet in the annual yearbook photo in Gary’s high school, where Alana works a job she loathes as an assistant to a “grabby” photographer. So, in an unorthodox manner, a friendship begins with Gary openly and spontaneously professing his feelings for Alana, and her keeping him in distance due to their approximately ten-year age gap.
The dynamic created between the two through their course at trying to succeed in joint business moves, while battling with growing up and trying to figure out the attraction between them, is such that they cannot stay apart for a long time because it makes them miserable. They become accustomed to each other, trying to form a platonic relationship, with affection already present. Gary believes in his naïve youthful thinking, that they are soulmates, and expresses it vividly, while Alana tries to suppress the prospect of them being together, as any other rationally thinking adult. There is, of course, a sexual awakening for Gary, whose hormones are in overdrive and is projected alongside his love for Alana, which is apparent in an awkward scene, where Alana flashes him — as requested numerous times by him — and then slaps him exiting and telling him she will see him tomorrow.
Gary is a lively, communicative, full of ideas teenager, with activities’ flame and the determination of a “showman” he believes he is born to be. He tries to continue his course in acting and the showbiz industry, through the famous children’s shows he started from, Reunion, where he is mistreated by the hostess off-camera and through advertisements, channelling his inner charisma; but he is not viewed as a commercial face anymore. That does not affect or stop him — he is relentless. He wants to become a self-made successful businessman, starting a water-mattress company named “Fat Bernie’s Waterbeds” with Alana’s help and when this does not go well, he moves on to “Fat Bernie’s Pinball Palace”. Despite him not being mature enough, he acts according to his age: fearless, sometimes immature, and unaware of the danger. Cooper Hoffman also does a fantastic job depicting Gary, presenting abundant talent, despite the fact that this movie is his first appearance.
Alana, on the other hand, deals with the fear of disappointing herself, fighting with her family (which is the actress’s actual family) about her future, and the comparison with “the better sister”. She wants to get out of the Valley, where she thinks the entrapment she feels, lies. She wants to change. She questions her behavior and maturity, while she tries to comprehend her feelings for Gary. She is more experienced and tries to find her passion, which ultimately leads her to want to make a difference, going to work in a mayor candidate’s office, Joel Wachs. A perplexed role played excellently by Benny Safdie, presented as a righteous savior in Alana’s eyes and she devotes herself to helping him; in the process, we find out that he is a closeted gay man, in a time when the stakes are high, and he has everything on the line.
There are scenes that present the age difference and how it is related to the two characters’ reactions to common experiences. There is a scene when Alana and Gary ran out of gas due to the oil crisis, driving their delivery truck, having just destroyed John Peters’, a famous actor that has displayed anger issues (played suitably as a caricature by Bradley Cooper) both mattress and expensive car. Alana, being an excellent driver, swerves dangerously downhill in reverse and manages to get them out of danger. Their reactions are diametrically opposite and correspond accurately to their “adultness” levels. He is excited, and she is petrified and glad they are all safe.
A love song to the movies
This film pays tribute with allusions to other coming-of-age themed movies and others not inherently so. It has been paralleled with Harold and Maude (1971), although the age difference is not as disturbing in this case, and it is approached in a more “careful” way. This leads us to the question: is Licorice Pizza a grooming scenario and would the audience be more reluctant if the roles were reversed — Alana being 15 and Gary 25? Initially, the age difference seems uncomfortable and non-feasible, but from the beginning, it does not have predatory undertones nor is there any sign of manipulation or exploitation apparent, as happens with Lolita (1997), for example. Still, the age gap is off-putting. The two characters pass through many stages in this strange hard-to-let-go nondefinable relationship. Alana wants to view herself as a sort of guardian figure in Gary’s life at first, and Gary is — in a reckless immature manner — “in love” with her. The ultimate depiction of their chemistry is a scene in which they ran as people do in romance movies: happily, free, after Gary’s release from the police precinct, where he was unnecessarily and falsely arrested.
Another movie that has been the predecessor of many ideas for pop culture movies that regard the process of adulting and is alluded in this movie, and it is the American Graffiti (1973), by the director that has greatly affected cinema, creator of Star Wars, George Lucas. Lastly, through the images and the feeling of “old Hollywood”, through figures such as Tom Waits and Sean Penn’s characters and the absurdly written, unstable, probably under the influence of cocaine or some other stipulating drug, John Peters, this movie’s — one of the many — themes is similar with and — in my opinion — more successful than what Quentin Tarantino tried to do in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019).
This movie has contributed to the deterioration of my issues with the idealization of the past and has made me want to have lived in such an era, without it ignoring the obvious problems subtly but clearly mentioned (oil embargo, sexism, police brutality, closeted sexuality, celebrity above-the-law behavior). It was a well-painted dream around a controversial but carefully approached relationship, in the beautifully dressed and comedically drawn canvas of growing up.
- Για Πες Καμιά Ταινία — Licorice Pizza #65 (Spoiler Free), spotify.com, Available for listening here
- Licorice Pizza Featurette — Alana Haim (2021) | Movieclips Trailers, youtube.com, Available for watching here
- Paul Thomas Anderson, wikipedia.org, Available here
- Definition of “grooming”, urbandictionary.com, Available here
- Benny Safdie Talks With Joel Wachs, Whom He Plays In Licorice Pizza, About Life in the Closet in ‘70s LA, gq.com, Available here
- How ‘Licorice Pizza’s Production Designer Florencia Martin Found Pinballs and Waterbeds, variety.com, Available here
- Arab oil embargo, britannica.com, Available here