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In a cold indifferent universe, it’s comforting to know that there’s a little pocket of happiness called “Licorice Pizza.” Paul Thomas Anderson’s coming-of-age comedy takes viewers on a dream-like romp around the San Fernando Valley in 1970s Los Angeles. Equal parts funny and endearing, “Licorice Pizza” is about finding love in the unlikeliest of places. It’s about wanting to grow up, only to find yourself lost once you get there. Most of all, it’s a love letter to Hollywood — an ode to the insecurities of growing up in a town where everybody knows exactly what they want to do next.
Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Alana Haim, from the band Haim) are two misfits stuck between adolescence and adulthood. Gary is 15 going on 16 and Alana is 25 going on, well, older. They’re an odd pair, but they share an instant connection. They say that their relationship is “not a boyfriend-girlfriend thing,” and yet they find themselves drawn to each other like a yoyo on the end of a string.
At one point, Alana asks her sister “do you think it’s weird that I hang out with Gary and his friends all the time?” Audiences probably wonder the same at first, but at the end of the day, it’s a pretty simple proposition. Gary acts like he has everything figured out, and Alana acts like she’s too cool to hang out with him. But really, they’re just two people who need someone to give them validation — and who happen to find that support in each other.
On one hand, Gary can’t wait to grow up and find a niche for himself in Los Angeles. He’s a young man who has grown out of his short career as a child actor and is on the prowl for the next big thing — starting three separate businesses over the course of the film. Suffice to say, Gary isn’t doing too shabbily for a 15 year-old, but behind his confident handshake and self-assured salesman talk is a character seeking approval — for someone to acknowledge that he’s gone far.
On the other hand, Alana needs time to slow down so she can figure out where she wants her life to go. We first meet her as a photographer’s assistant for a high school yearbook, and the film sees her try out many different roles: Gary’s business partner, an actress, and a campaign staffer. Through all these changes, Gary’s wide-eyed adoration for Alana remains unwavering, but it’s in Alana’s quiet moments of reflection that we see all the nuances and insecurities in their friendship. Anderson wrote “Licorice Pizza” with Haim in mind, and in a stunning debut performance, she more than lives up to that calling. She brings a magnetic screen presence to her namesake character, and her natural, affable charm is easily the brightest spot in an already luminous film.
Anderson lets his characters bounce around from one episodic misadventure to the next, crashing into historical LA figures along the way. For instance, after a botched waterbed delivery for deranged film producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), Gary and Alana make a run for it — driving their truck backwards downhill on an empty tank. This loose plot structure makes it feel like fate is willing Gary and Alana together. After Alana’s many failed attempts at romance, where a B-tier LA celebrity uses her as an accessory, she always finds Gary there to help her back up. And in all of Gary’s attempts to find someone, well, closer to his age, he never finds anyone as supportive as Alana. Gary and Alana are constantly running — away from the chaotic world around them — and into one another’s arms.
What helps this relationship fly is the film’s beautiful attention to period detail, from gorgeous production design to a catchy soundtrack. “Licorice Pizza” also boasts beautiful cinematography — shot on 35mm film, it really feels like we’re peering into the ‘70s through rose-tinted glasses. Fans of Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” will also delight in his stunning tracking shots — like a one-take opening dolly that effectively captures Gary’s instant admiration for Alana.
“Licorice Pizza” is a rare glimpse of genuine delight from Anderson, a director best known for his complex studies on twisted characters. Who would’ve known that Paul Thomas Anderson knows how to be happy? In a celebrated filmography, “Licorice Pizza” is far and away Anderson’s most personal, endearing film. Gary and Alana’s deep friendship-slash-unconsummated-relationship says: In a world where nothing else makes sense, it’s about the comfort of knowing that someone is there who cares about you. Because when all is said and done, no matter the age, we’re all just searching for a little acceptance and understanding.
—Staff writer Lanz Aaron G. Tan can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @LanzAaronGTan1.
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