- Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
- Drama/Comedy | R | 2 hr 13 min
- Exclusively in Theaters
By Reed Ripley
The term “Licorice Pizza” has nothing to do with licorice, or with its decidedly less controversial counterpart, pizza. It’s a highly specific reference to a record shop that took its name from a slang term for vinyl records, from a certain time and place, the 1970s in the San Fernando Valley. It’s the home of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s youth and inspiration for his latest masterpiece.
Licorice Pizza is a coming-of-age drama that follows Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Alana Haim) as they navigate the latter stages of childhood and early stages of adulthood, as well as budding young love, in 1973 San Fernando Valley. It’s a simple premise, and one that works splendidly.
World-building is an oft-discussed attribute of fantasy, sci-fi, and other genre filmmaking, but it’s just as important for dramas, if not more so. To work, the film still must transport you, at least for the couple hours you’re in the theater, and, in some ways, it’s more difficult to do that without relying on majestic venues from another world or grandiose displays of magic. From its opening scene (a brisk walk-and-talk on Gary’s school grounds as he charms his way into a date with Alana), Licorice Pizza feels exceedingly lived-in, to the point it feels as though you’ve literally dropped into the pair’s lives at this exact moment.
A lot of credit must go to Hoffman (working with the director as his late father Philip Seymour Hoffman did so many times) and Haim, who both make their film debuts. Their performances are so natural, and from the jump, they’re imminently believable as two young people trying desperately to work through the complicated emotions of young adulthood, sometimes expressly, sometimes internally.
That feeling doesn’t stop at the character work, either. The technical aspects, especially the camera work and soundtrack, beautifully mirror what’s going on with the acting and writing. The camera bobs and weaves with its subjects, whipping back and forth during dialogue as if it’s a part of the conversation. Too, the soundtrack is sublime; it’s not just that the songs are great (David Bowie, Paul McCartney, and an underrated Doors track, for example), it’s that they’re deployed so effectively, and so honestly, it feels as though this is the soundtrack of the Valley in the early 70s, at least for this slice of life, and a time traveler from 1973 wouldn’t have any edits except perhaps “more please.”
This stuff is present in all Paul Thomas Anderson films (it’s why he’s considered one of our greatest living filmmakers), but there’s a pure sentimentality and joy here that’s not present elsewhere. That’s not surprising given the connection to PTA’s childhood in the Valley, and it’s refreshing to see him let loose and not worry so much about crafting a Great Work of Cinema (although, of course, he did anyway).
That’s not to say the film is a streamlined, breezy ball of fun with no underlying tension or complexity. Specifically, the way adults are used is fascinating. Every time an adult (at least, those that are presented as much in a traditional sense) comes into frame, there’s an undercurrent of toxicity and danger that ripples through the story.
That underlying corrosiveness plays into one of the film’s biggest thematic through lines: running, both literal and metaphoric. Many, many shots show Gary and Alana running through the Valley’s streets, most often toward one another. Portrayed against the backdrop of the OPEC oil crisis, the running evinces the freedom and thrill of just taking off, without a real destination in mind, sometimes running from something specific, sometimes running just for the hell of it. For most, it’s something left behind as childhood inevitably transitions to adulthood, and PTA tapped into that feeling beautifully.
Reed Ripley is a movie aficionado who in his spare time is a local attorney. You can find Ripley’s movie reviews on Instagram @mct.film.