Licorice Pizza, the latest release from Paul Thomas Anderson, is perhaps the last film you would expect to follow 2017’s Phantom Thread. In contrast to that film’s cold, muted depiction of 1950s London, Licorice Pizza, set in 1970s LA, is drenched in sunshine and nostalgia. What they do have in common, however, is the use of a dysfunctional relationship as a framing device for the journey of self-discovery their characters go through. In Licorice Pizza, these characters are Alana, a 25-year-old with a severe case of arrested development, and Gary, a 15-year-old child actor/businessman. Though Anderson fills the supporting cast with well-known veterans, for his leads he chooses two unfamiliar faces, albeit with familiar names. Alana Haim, of the band Haim, and Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, both make their debuts here and are immediately outstanding. The success of the film rests almost entirely on their performances, with Anderson trusting their subtle, natural chemistry to convey the array of emotions implicit in the small details of their relationship. These naturalistic performances, as well as the free-flowing structure of the low-stakes narrative, make the film seem more like a nostalgic memory than a constructed fiction.
Though Cooper is brilliant here, making a character that could easily have come across irritating, instead appear completely endearing, this film truly belongs to Alana, character and actor. Gary’s role is more akin to a Manic Pixie Dream Girl subversion than a male romantic lead, with him swooping in to free Alana from her stagnant life with his teenage schemes. Though we get hints about his life outside of this relationship – he clearly plays a patriarchal role in his family, with his mother being his employee and him often looking after his younger brother – this is only explored to establish why he seems so mature for his age. Meanwhile, as we see Alana constantly moving between jobs, styles, attitudes, desperately searching for fulfilment, we experience the film through her experiences. In this way, the film is more of a coming-of-age film for those in their 20s rather than a typical high school narrative.
Though the film’s success depends heavily on Alana and Gary’s relationship, their age-gap has been a point of contention for some, despite the relationship remaining platonic for most of the film. However, to me the film does not pass judgement on the relationship, positive or negative – it is only commented upon when Alana states it is “weird”. Instead, it is used to examine and develop these characters through the exploration of what the relationship, even while platonic, means to them. For Gary, who spends much of his teenage life acting as though he were already a successful adult, it allows him to feel respected in a manner that isn’t subtly patronising. Alana’s admiration of him affirms to him that he can fulfil the patriarchal role he plays within his family. For Alana, Gary is the only person with whom she appears confident in herself, with whom she has a purpose. Though the relationship may have formed in an atypical fashion, it allows them both to, for once, feel understood and admired, even if they don’t quite understand the nature of that connection. For me, the film actually resists romanticising the difference in their age by depicting the relationship as one that thrives on loneliness and listlessness – when Alana is so lonely that she agrees to dinner with Gary despite him being 15 or finds herself in a near-death situation surrounded by 15-year-olds who think it was cool, her life is certainly not depicted as something to aspire to.
Though the film centres around this relationship, the supporting cast is full of scene-stealing characters. From Tom Waits’ (too short) venture into directing to Sean Penn’s self-obsessed old Hollywood actor to Bradley Cooper threatening someone with a petrol pump, everyone in the film is giving it their all and clearly having a great time. There’s a lot going on, but it never feels too busy or convoluted: like the performances, the low-stakes of the free-wheeling plot makes it all seem natural. While the oddball Hollywood archetypes and teenage business schemes add to the fun of the film,
what sets it apart is that under it all is a simple, sun-kissed ode to nostalgic memories of growing up, the loneliness of feeling lost within your own life and the delicate, comforting beauty of feeling found again.
[Megan Fitzpatrick – she/her – @chaoticmlkhotel]
[Image credit: Christopher Farrugia]