By: Jolie Featherstone
Set in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is a wholly immersive ‘endless summer’ following two enterprising misfits in the deliriously light-headed throes of youth.
Reportedly loosely based on stories from the life of actor and producer Gary Goetzman, Licorice Pizza (named after a chain of LA-based record stores) is a scintillating coming-of-age tale. Gary Valentine (played by Cooper Hoffman, the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman – a frequent Anderson collaborator) is a precocious 15-year-old child star who thinks himself beyond his years. When he spots 25-year-old Alana (Alana Haim of HAIM fame in a breakout role) at his school picture day, he immediately strikes up a conversation. He attempts to flirt with her and invites her to meet him later. From that initial meeting, a match is struck. We grow with them as they try to navigate the freeing and frightening world of emerging adulthood. As with all growth, there is pain, discomfort, and awkwardness as well as beauty.
The film is rich with warm 1970s California vibes. It’s a love letter to the many characters in the Valley in the early 1970s. The hustlers, the has-beens, the latch-key kids, and the American-Dream-chasers: all are featured in jovial remembrance. The gorgeous lighting and art direction lulls us into the golden heat of this long, languid summer of youth; a space where time feels refracted. Close enough to the “real world” of adulthood to inspire hope and excitement for the future, but not quite there yet.
It’s important to acknowledge that there is an unfortunate running gag throughout the film which involves a racist restaurateur. My suspicion is that Anderson is calling attention to and criticizing the prevalent and blatant racism of the milieu, especially among privileged white professionals who’d like to think of themselves as cultured. However, the ends certainly do not justify the means in the case of this gag.
The chemistry between the leads – both newcomers – is magnetic and raw. Gary and Alana are not precisely in love in a conventionally romantic notion. However, their bond is intimate and tightly-knit. They gravitate to each other initially out of intrigue, and then later cling to each other for comfort as they wade into the uncharted territory of pending adulthood. They are connected and lean on each other – in ways both healthy and not. Forever circling in each other’s orbits, sometimes colliding in joyful energy and other times repelling each other with irritation and insecurity.
It is necessary to note that the age difference between the two characters presents a seriously problematic relationship. Although their relationship isn’t portrayed as an overtly sexual one, I sense that Anderson presents this situation to knowingly challenge us. To ask us to be mindful in our witnessing of their relationship. Indeed, their relationship is messy and mutually enabling. At times it is also honest, raw, and genuinely caring. The film asks us not to glorify their relationship, nor condemn it. It simply asks us to contemplate and join these two enigmatic people as they shakily explore life and love.
Shot with sumptuous colours on glorious film, Licorice Pizza is ultimately a lovingly woven tapestry of 70s-era California tall tales, forgotten idols, hazy memories, and the piercing bittersweet sting of first love.
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Jolie Featherstone: @TOFilmFiles