Michael Lee explores Paul Thomas Anderson’s coming-of-age comedy-drama film.
Writer/ Director Paul Thomas Anderson is nothing less than a cinematic alchemist, who casts masterful spells, incantations, and strange magic, turning celluloid into pure gold. Licorice Pizza is Anderson’s ninth feature, and his first film since Phantom Thread. Licorice Pizza is a time machine of absolute compassion. It’s a radiant coming-of-age romance, that fills your heart with electricity and actively propels you straight into another dimension. We’re brought into the ’70s in the San Fernando Valley in California, Anderson’s homeland, where his curious eye finds mystery every step of the way. The film is as much a love letter to youth, as it is to the Valley and Valley life, and it couldn’t be more personal, with Anderson’s fingerprint marking every frame of the film with a potent authenticity.
It’s 1973, and Gary Valentine, a 16-year-old child actor, is standing in line for his high-school picture, when he sees the photography assistant, and is struck through the heart. He’s captivated by a sudden electric attraction. She’s a little older, a little Jewish, and breathtakingly beautiful. Gary curiously introduces himself to Alana Kane. Alana’s a Valley girl through and through. So, when Gary starts flirting with her, she looks at him as if he has two heads; before flirting back. Right off the bat, there’s something in the air, some unspoken chemistry between these two bewildered California souls. Gary looks Alana in the eye, and point-blank asks her out. She protests. She’s 25. She’s too old, and he’s too young. But Gary’s undeterred, and tells her, he’ll be waiting at his favourite local spot that evening. For every reason she shouldn’t go, Alana can’t help but feel drawn into the orbit of Gary’s singular confidence and charisma. As fate would have it, Alana joins Gary. There’s a spontaneous connection between them, some kind of voodoo in the air. But the universe hasn’t fully decided what’s going to happen between them. Alana quickly warns Gary that she’s not his girlfriend. But Gary isn’t worried, and immediately asks for her number. As time passes, they’re brought together and apart, as they manoeuvre through the perils of love, life, and teenage hijinks, in a cosmic dance of fate.
Debut actor Cooper Hoffman, brings a pin-sharp natural warmth and charisma to Gary Valentine, that’s raging with honesty. He’s magnetic. There’s something about him, a real natural hustler, who really tries to see the best in everything. And Alana Haim is stellar. She totally inhabits Alana Kane. She’s fiery, intoxicating, and a little aloof, but impossible not to fall in love with. Anderson’s ensemble is rounded out by a motley crew of all-star players, including, Bradley Cooper, Maya Rudolph, Sean Penn, and Tom Waits, and a blink and you’ll miss it cameo by Anderson veteran John C. Reilly.
The film is scored by Anderson’s long-time musical conspirator Jonny Greenwood, but ultimately this is a soundtrack movie. Anderson has carefully curated a period-accurate mixtape that hits all the right beats and then some, with the likes of Bowie, The Doors, and Paul McCartney, among others.
Anderson brings his vision of the ’70s to life with cinematographer Michael Bauman. Together they’ve made the Valley a grainy sun-soaked dream world, with every haunt and nook and cranny embossed in smoky shadow, and every moment on screen, one of pure handcrafted affection.
Licorice Pizza is a jubilant celebration of first love and youthful innocence, told with an unyielding earnestness. It’s a film rooted in backyard mysteries, local legends, and the sacred rituals of Valley romance. This is first-class personal filmmaking by an honest to god born storyteller, who prizes character and craft above all else. For anyone who may have felt the sky falling these past few years, or is simply feeling the blues; rest assured, as long as Anderson’s heart keeps beating and there’s still ink in his pen, he’ll always have a story to tell, and the world will be all the brighter for it.
Licorice Pizza is in cinemas from 31st December 2021.