Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch Drunk Love, Magnolia), Licorice Pizza—a coming-of-age tale set in the San Fernando Valley of the early 1970s—finds the 51-year-old, nostalgia-minded auteur in decidedly chill, laid-back mode. Anderson intentionally avoids the big, weighty themes and major artistic statements typical of his most critically acclaimed, masterpiece-level work (Phantom Thread, The Master, There Will Be Blood), while embracing the long, leisurely takes, narrative switchbacks, and eccentric character-driven drama analogously found in Anderson’s loose, 2014 adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s detective novel, Inherent Vice.
When we first meet Licorice Pizza’s ostensible protagonist, Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), he’s semi-nervously prepping himself for a familiar rite-of-passage—the high-school class photo. Waiting in line with his classmates, his eyes and ears naturally gravitate toward Alana Kane (Alana Haim, one-third of sibling supergroup HAIM), a 25-year-old photographer’s assistant disinterestedly walking around with a handheld mirror. Gary, a supremely self-confident 15-year-old with an impressive resume as a child actor and a self-styled entrepreneur’s attitude toward self-invention, attempts to sweet-talk the older, if not quite wiser, Alana into going out with him. She does eventually, but only with the caveat that any future together wouldn’t involve romance, just friendship.
That first will-they-or-won’t-they scene functions as both a central question and the inevitable source of tension in Licorice Pizza. To borrow an overused phrase, Alana (Kane, not Haim) clearly sees a relationship between a young woman and a high-school teen as problematic, but despite her constant objections and affirmations, she’s drawn to Gary and his outsized, extroverted personality. While Alana struggles with the usual life choices facing twenty-somethings in any decade, she finds comfort both in Gary’s self-confidence, in his ability to shape and bend their corner of the world to his whims and the minimal, even nonexistent, responsibilities of living semi-blissfully as an upper-middle-class teenager in 1973 California.
At least initially, Alana and Gary’s stories converge. First with Gary asking Alana to accompany him as his “guardian,” cannily leveraging a trip to New York City to appear on a television program, which allows her a peek into Gary’s quickly-ending chapter as a child actor. Later, following Gary’s explicit encouragement and dubious professional advice, Alana attempts to become a Hollywood actor, sitting down for an interview with a credulous talent agent that quickly goes off the proverbial rails. Then later, becoming part of a comical tangent involving a hard-drinking, egomaniacal Old Hollywood actor, Jack Holden (Sean Penn), Rex Blau (Tom Waits), a film director and Holden’s personal hype man, and a wildly dangerous, Steve McQueen-inspired stunt on a golf course.
Anderson’s tangent-laden, incident-filled approach to storytelling here eventually encompasses everything from passing California fads like the waterbed business Gary starts and a pinball arcade Gary also starts moments after discovering the law prohibiting pinball machines in California has been rescinded. Then we have Alana’s experiences as a volunteer and sometime observer of the real-life Joel Wachs’s (Benny Safdie) impossibly optimistic campaign for mayor of Los Angeles, the closest Licorice Pizza comes to making a political statement. An environmentalist and social justice reformer, the closeted Wachs runs headlong into the prejudices, biases, and homophobia of early ‘70s, conservative America.
If there’s anything approaching character growth in Licorice Pizza, it belongs squarely to Alana. Pulled into Gary’s orbit early on for multiple, overlapping reasons, Alana consistently questions and struggles against the choices she makes, all the while recognizing that her attraction to Gary isn’t so much physical or even emotional as it is relational or representational. Gary represents a level of freedom and open-ended possibility that Alana doesn’t find in a life without Gary. A near life-or-death encounter with Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), a slightly fictionalized version of Barbra Streisand’s onetime boyfriend, a hairdresser-turned-producer, awakens Alana’s conventional desire to participate in more supposedly grown-up activities like political campaigns, only for Alana to discover the troubling, heartbreaking compromises adults often make in running for public office.
Alana’s surprising emergence as the central character in Licorice Pizza puts a relatively heavy burden on singer-songwriter-musician Alana Haim, making an impressive feature-length debut that bodes well for future endeavours in front of the camera. Alana isn’t new to Anderson as his familiarity with the Haim family stretches back decades, while his relationship with HAIM goes back at least half a decade as he acted as their video director of choice. Anderson made room in Licorice Pizza, not just for Alana’s real-life sisters, Este and Danielle, but for her extra-filmic parents, Moti and Donna, too, leaning into their real-world, familial relationships to add several notes of grounded authenticity to Alana’s conflicted, conflicting home life.