The story of Alana Kane and Gary Valentine growing up, running around and going through the treacherous navigation of first love in the San Fernando Valley, 1973.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest movie is a coming of drama about a budding relationship between a young actor and a photographer’s assistant, set in Los Angeles in the 1970s. It’s called ‘Licorice Pizza’ (so called after a chain of record stores in LA at the time), and the approach Anderson takes is to tell a fictional story with elements of real events and real life people being blended into the narrative. After the intensity of ‘There Will Be Blood’, ‘The Master‘ and ‘Phantom Thread’, and the manic energy of ‘Inherent Vice’, this is a more relaxed effort from Anderson and to coin a phrase I’ve used in a couple of recent reviews, is his ‘most personal film to date’.
The film begins with Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son of Philip Seymour) meeting and attempting to flirt with Alana (Alana Haim) at his school where he’s waiting to get his photo taken, and where she’s assisting the photographer. He’s 15 and she’s 25, yet he has the confidence and the charm of a much older man and that intrigues Alana, who is at that stage in her life where she can’t quite figure out who she is or what she wants to be. As well as being a child actor, Gary is also a bit of a hustler and has various schemes on the go which Alana allows herself to be drawn into, and as they spend more time together the connection between them grows, even as Alana rebels against it. Gary is based on the child actor Gary Goetzman and stories of the schemes he’d get involved in as a youth, including the waterbeds and pinball machines that are depicted here. It’s a lot of fun watching it all play out on screen, aided by the brilliant performances from the two leads.
You wouldn’t believe that this was Haim and Hoffman’s first feature film as both are superb and have great chemistry with each other. Cooper Hoffman has every bit of his late father’s charm and it helps the audience to overcome the age gap and understand why Alana would be drawn to a teenager, whilst Haim’s performance makes you wonder why she hadn’t turned her hand to acting prior to this (Anderson had directed a lot of the music videos for her band ‘Haim’, hence the casting). I wasn’t as keen on some of the other casting with Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper both appearing in essentially extended cameos which are hard to describe as anything other than stunt casting. Both are clearly having a ball but they feel as if they’ve entered from a different movie entirely.
‘Licorice Pizza’ does go off on tangents, not always successfully, although some of these are important to helping Gary and Alana to understand their feelings for one another. One of these subplots involves Alana’s involvement with a local politician’s election campaign (Joel Wachs, who was a real politician, played by Benny Safdie), which initially feels unnecessary but builds to a key moment where Alana realises through being used herself, that she has also somewhat used and led on Gary. The depiction of the setting and the time period feels deeply authentic, with a well selected soundtrack bolstering some of the key moments in the movie (enhanced by Jonny Greenwood’s score – is there a movie he hasn’t scored lately!?), and I was captivated by the journey Alana and Gary go on throughout the movie.
I found lots to love about ‘Licorice Pizza’, a really enjoyable coming of age movie from Paul Thomas Anderson with star making turns from Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman, and whilst it definitely doesn’t finish as strongly as it starts, this is a good start to hopefully another great year of movies.
Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie, Skyler Gisondo, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, John Michael Higgins, Christine Ebersole, Harriet Sansom Harris, Maya Rudolph and John C. Reilly