by Brandon Yunker
“Just say yes. Even if you don’t know how to do something, just say yes.” The lesson for working as an actor in Hollywood comes around the middle of Paul Thomas Anderson’ s LICORICE PIZZA. There is something so simple and yet so powerful about this affirmation. It’s freeing. It’s optimistic. And it’s infectious, just like the film itself.
The ninth film by Paul Thomas Anderson follows the budding relationship between the adrift 25-year-old Alana Kane (played by Alana Haim) and the 15-year-old go-getter Gary Valentine (played by Cooper Hoffman) as they seek to find success, and their sense of purpose in the early 1970’s San Fernando Valley. The return to the Valley, is a bit of homecoming for Anderson. A native of Los Angeles, several of his films have used it as a backdrop, including Boogie Nights and Magnolia. But what’s different this time is that Licorice Pizza is a light-hearted romp into the wonderfully awkward years of young adulthood. Sure, there are stakes, but for the most part they aren’t particularly high. The film captures the golden years of self-discovery through its charming and dynamic characters of Alana and Gary.
The film revolves around the couple that is clearly interested in taking their relationship to a serious level, but neither one of them is sure about the other’s commitment. Alana is facing pressure as the youngest daughter of a well-to-do family who seems be the only one without any sort of real plan for the future. Gary is an ambitious but aging child actor who is transitioning to the next phase of his life and seeks to become a successful entrepreneur. It is a fascinating dynamic to follow that is played well by the lead performers in their film debut.
This contrast in characters is what brings a spark to their relationship and what grabs our attention. The pacing of the film is laid back. It’s the early 70’s after all! But there is this electric synergy on screen when we watch Alana and Gary struggle to find their place in the world and with each other. The setting itself provides a rich tapestry of historical events such as the 1973 oil crisis and, as one could imagine, an eccentric variety of entertainment figures ranging from directors and talent agents to producers and politicians. And on top of the pie is the soundtrack featuring music from the era. It’s an effective time capsule, aided by naturalistic lighting.
But what might be most endearing about Licorice Pizza is that it’s funny. Much of the development of plot and characters comes through subtle dialogue and actions that are catchy. I was surprised by how many tidbits of dialogue and phrases in jest were swirling around my head hours and even days after watching the film. The interactions between Alana and Gary are almost never completely honest; they speak around each other and tease one another throughout the film and its cute and refreshing to see them get under each other’s skin.
Licorice Pizza is its own kind of romantic coming-of-age story. It doesn’t attempt to tell a classic story of romance and young love in a way that most films do. It follows the beat of its own drum which is rooted in faith and persistent optimism that things will work out in the end and that your partner will ultimately have your back. And for the two main characters, that commitment means everything.