Gemma Grant | February 18, 2022
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson of There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights fame, Licorice Pizza is a sprawling, warm and nostalgic look into 1970s existence within California’s San Fernando Valley. Notable cast members include Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper and John Michael Higgins, but the film is unquestionably centred around its stars Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman. Neither of these actors are strangers to the entertainment industry. Haim is a member of her family’s eponymous rock group along with her two sisters, who also play Alana’s on-screen siblings, while Hoffman is the son of late acting great and frequent Anderson collaborator, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. For both of them however, this is their feature film debut. Haim plays Alana, a 25 year-old woman employed part-time at a photography agency, while Hoffman is Gary, a high school student who is a successful child actor. Both performances are fresh, heartfelt and entirely believable—providing a much needed backbone to the world which Licorice Pizza goes on to create.
In many ways, the text can be read as an ode to Anderson’s own childhood. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, the director’s own experiences likely had parallels with that presented on screen. Furthermore, many of the characters (including washed up actor Jack Holden and Gary Valentine himself) are based on real individuals who existed in the 1970s. This anchoring of the past links the narrative with a distinct source material, and inspires the dreamy exterior of the film. Such nostalgic qualities are further solidified by the visual aesthetics within Licorice Pizza. Shot entirely on 35mm film, an unusual artistic decision for a modern production, each frame is imbued with a distinct texture. Bright and contrasting colours complement the ‘70s mise-en-scène and viewers find themselves quite literally transported into the timeframe of the film.
When it comes to storyline, the production does not fit neatly into the narrative arc which is adopted frequently within Hollywood. Certainly, the film establishes its principal characters in Alana and Gary. From here, Licorice Pizza characterises its two protagonists through a variety of events and escapades. Watching the main characters make decisions and settle conflicts allows audiences to understand their motivations, and recognise the development Gary and Alana each experience throughout the film. The “will they/won’t they” romantic dynamic also serves to demonstrate this growth. While the relationship may be read as the main purpose of the film, of more importance is what it represents for both protagonists. Alana, a 20-something-year-old woman stuck in the routine of a dead end job, seeks a sense of excitement to break up that which has become monotonous. She has a strained relationship with her family, and views the 9-to-5 existence of her sister with derision. In terms of romance, the men around her are sleazy and indecent—whether it’s the predatory boss at her photography job, or William Holden, a film aficionado who unknowingly lets her fall off a moving motorcycle as he pursues his own fame and glory. Just as her part-time job represents Alana’s feelings of stagnancy, so too do the men she interacts with on a daily basis. These factors communicate why when a charming and ambitious 15-year-old asks her out for dinner, she shows up, despite the startling age gap.
Meanwhile, Gary Valentine is quickly growing out of the youth which has forever defined his identity. No longer the juvenile “song and dance” performer he was “born to be,” he seeks to be taken seriously by those around him. Anderson is impressive in his visual depiction of this outgrowing that Gary is experiencing. Notably, this can be seen as he attends a casting call towards the beginning of the film. Gary sits in a room of boys much younger than him, his physical frame towering over the other child actors. This is underscored by Maya Ruldolph’s character, who comments on how much the boy has grown, and how he must be “eating his vegetables.” This scene in particular represents Gary’s main predicament: his stature and ambition no longer fit the childhood he is living, however he continues to be patronised by the adults around him. As the film progresses, both Gary’s business ventures and his pursuit of Alana can thus be read as evidence of his desire to grow up. Through the teenager’s eyes, the photographer’s assistant is a mature woman, and far cry from the girls of his high school. Their dialogue is typically snarky and sarcastic, perhaps mirroring Gary’s expectations of an adult relationship. Alana is also sure to note herself as an equal in Gary’s business ventures, often labelling herself as a “partner” rather than an “employee”, and adopting a motherly role amongst his teenage friends. In contrast, when Alana is drunk and flirting at a party, thus mirroring the youthful behaviour of Gary’s peers, he quickly loses interest. Alana is in this instance a reminder rather than a distraction of the childhood which Gary is seeking to break free from.
As the film progresses, the desires of the two protagonists grow increasingly clear. However, a romantic relationship continually fails to be initiated. At the beginning of the film’s third act, the reality of Gary’s young age sets in for Alana. Suddenly, the positive effect that his ambition and excitement had on her unfulfilling life begins to wear off. This revelation is depicted beautifully by Anderson, with a shot-reverse shot of Alana capturing her disdain as she watches Gary and his friends engage in lewd gestures while they refuel their broken down truck. She goes on to finally pull her life together by conventional standards, and for a while it seems as if Alana has progressed beyond Gary. However, as a feeling of mediocrity continues to plague Alana, she ultimately decides to abandon this course and profess her love for Gary at the end of the narrative, thus solidifying the overarching themes which the film looks to embody.
On a broader note, it would be remiss to engage in a discussion of Licorice Pizza without mentioning the controversy that tinges its exterior. The blatant caricature of Japanese individuals stands out sorely. Falling flat, and offensive rather than humorous, audiences are pushed to wonder what Anderson’s intentions were in including such stereotypes. This racist imitation seems more suited to the outdated era that the film depicts than it is to modern viewers. In addition, the main romantic pairing between Alana and Gary involves an underage high school student and a woman who is in her mid-20s, an artistic decision which is likely uncomfortable for many. Such age gaps in reality are certainly manipulative and involve a clear power imbalance. However, it is impossible to extend these moral decisions to fiction. The key question to consider is whether a depiction of age-gap romance is equivalent with its endorsement. And while Licorice Pizza includes such a relationship, it does not ultimately endorse the romance between the pair. Nor through its narrative does it make this coupling the film’s end goal. The decision to establish this romance, although unconventional, ties together the themes which are being reflected. For Alana, it underscores her unwillingness to surrender to the life which is expected of her. Just as this film acts as a vehicle through which Anderson reminisces on his own childhood, a relationship with Gary acts as a means through which she can escape her everyday. Conversely, this relationship has finally brought Gary someone who takes him seriously, who has belief in his aspirations, and who he sees as a route away from the child star existence he has outgrown.
While the romantic pairing should be in no way condoned or mirrored, this relationship is not in itself the defining moment within Licorice Pizza. Rather, Alana and Gary running together at the conclusion of the film signals their respective growth and maturation which has occurred throughout the narrative. Instead of romanticising the age-gap relationship, Anderson enlists it to convey the main desires of the two protagonists. In other words, the confession of love itself is not the resolution of the narrative, but rather the coming-of-age journey which it completes. For both characters, the events within the storyline have each existed as lessons, culminating in a newfound ability to acknowledge what aspects of life will truly make them feel fulfilled. It is this investigation of youth, paired with the distinct aesthetic of the production, that saturates the film with its own distinct quality. For those like Anderson, who hold fond memories of their Californian upbringing in the 1970s, this film is sure to strike a specific note of nostalgia. But even for audience members who grew up many kilometres away and many decades later, Licorice Pizza is a story which champions the freedom, passion and excitement which are each an integral part of forging your own identity.