Growing up takes a long time. At many different moments in a young person’s life, the world can seem to simultaneously stand still and hurdle forward at a dizzying speed. Depending on where you are in your journey, this paradox can either put wind under your wings or trap you in a despondent paralysis. Whether you feel on top of the world or crushed beneath the weight of it all, the one thing that everyone growing up has in common is the need to feel validated, appreciated, and taken seriously. This essential, universal desire is explored with grace and empathy in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ninth feature film, Licorice Pizza, through the entangled experiences of fifteen year-old child actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and twenty-five year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim), who is coasting in the strange space between “who I am,” and “who I want to be.”
Licorice Pizza, set in the San Fernando Valley during the early 1970s, follows Gary and Alana through their tumultuous relationship as it swings from romance, to friendship, and through all of the ambiguous spaces in between. In many ways, they are foils of each other, Gary with the wind of a thus-far lucrative and fulfilling childhood beneath his wings, Alana stuck in the perpetual boredom of middle-class early adulthood. “You’re gonna be rich in a mansion by the time you’re sixteen, I’m going to be here, taking photos of kids for their yearbooks, when I’m 30,” muses Alana at their first dinner together. Despite these differences, we feel that shared desire bubbling beneath the surface, and this connection continues to bring them back together against all odds through a journey that’s beautiful to witness.
Anderson, as usual, is in full and focused control here. As director, writer, and lead cinematographer, he weaves a setting and narrative that is vast and intricate,but not exhaustingly so. The film’s pacing gracefully flows between scenes of soft, quiet melancholy and explosive moments of triumph. At times, the camera floats down sunset-soaked evening sidewalks, in long, lazy shots that evoke weightlessness and allow the viewer to soak in the scenes with no sense of urgency. This blissful drifting is cut short, with delightfully mischievous timing, by sudden whirlwinds of meticulously captured excitement.
Licorice Pizza proves to be not only Anderson’s most loose and playful film, but also his most personal. Anderson, a native of the Valley, portrays his old stomping grounds with warm, neon-saturated affection. The feeling of familiarity that comes from the setting makes for the perfect emotional backdrop for the universal feelings of friendship, validation, and young romance that are explored here. As a whole, Licorice Pizza, like all great coming-of-age movies, feels like a shared experience. This film is a warm hug, from an old friend.
Licorice Pizza is currently playing in cinemas across Lisbon.