Paul Thomas Anderson is one of our great contemporary auteurs. Case in point, his 2007 film, There Will Be Blood, is frequently cited as a masterpiece of 21st century filmmaking. His latest movie, Licorice Pizza, is a sweet, funny, occasionally poignant, and completely original coming-of-age story that follows the lives of two young people struggling with romance and who they want to be in the world.
Licorice Pizza takes place in San Fernando Valley during the early seventies. The curious title comes from a now defunct chain of record stores, which are completely irrelevant to the story. But the incongruent words, “licorice” and “pizza,” take on new meaning when they’re side by side – not unlike the film’s two protagonists, Gary and Alana. Gary is a precocious 15-year-old actor and entrepreneur; he creates new companies as often as most people get haircuts. Alana, who is ten years older, works a dead end job as a portrait photographer’s assistant. They meet each other at Gary’s high school while Alana is offering a mirror to students standing in line for their yearbook photo. Gary, an average looking teen with above average chutzpah, becomes instantly smitten and aggressively comes on to Alana, asking her to meet him later at his favorite restaurant.
Even though Alana is noncommittal and laughs at Gary’s audacity, when he returns home he matter-of-factly tells his little brother that he’s just met the woman he’s going to marry. Of course, she does show up at the restaurant, and they soon become friends. But Alana, who constantly reminds Gary he’s just a kid, keeps their newfound relationship chaste, even though hormones push both of them into exploring other, more age-appropriate possibilities. Their resulting friendship constantly teeters between something more-than and complete flameout. It’s that precarious dynamic, which bubbles beneath the surface of every fledgling relationship, that powers the drama and the comedy.
As with its spiritual cousin, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Licorice Pizza is loosely structured, consisting of vignettes punctuated by an eclectic soundtrack of era-appropriate music that evokes a specific time and place. A segment featuring Bradley Cooper is so entertaining – with a clearly defined middle, beginning, and end – it could stand alone as a great short feature. In another stellar sequence, Sean Penn makes an appearance. But neither of their star powers can outshine Alana Haim, who stars as Alana. Her beguiling screen presence grabs our attention and never lets go. Cooper Hoffman, son of the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is also very good as Gary. But it’s Alana Haim’s film all the way.
Even though Paul Thomas Anderson keeps things real by avoiding glamour shots and reveling in close-ups of imperfect teeth and skin blemishes, he gives us Gary & Alana moments that border on the magical, as when he shows them euphorically running down the street, burning off the excitement of simply being together. Or after Alana is literally dumped off the back of a motorcycle by a self-absorbed actor, and Gary runs to her side, you can actually feel Alana’s affection for Gary crystallize as the two walk confidently towards the camera in slo-mo, ready to take on the world. These are just two of the many electric moments that make Licorice Pizza one of the best films of 2021.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski