Once Upon a Time … in the Valley: Licorice Pizza is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Ode to Adolescence

By Nicole Galioto
Boston University News Service

Paul Thomas Anderson’s work has always been known to toe the line between the real world and absurdity. His latest film, “Licorice Pizza” is no different. 

Hollywood movies focused on the fringe of adulthood are not uncommon, and this film could have easily fallen into commonly used tropes. Instead, “Licorice Pizza” provides a unique perspective, by presenting a sort of inverse coming-of-age film: one where everyone gains experience but no one ever really grows up.

“Licorice Pizza” follows 15-year-old Gary Valentine (played by Cooper Hoffman) and 25-year-old Alana Kane (portrayed by Alana Haim) across the San Fernando Valley in 1973 as they work their way through a series of triumphs and mishaps, all the while suggesting but not yet committing to a romantic relationship between them.

The two are introduced at Gary’s high school, as Alana is the assistant photographer on picture day. Gary is enraptured by Alana’s looks and pesters her throughout the opening sequence of the film. She eventually agrees to meet him for a dinner in which she is almost immediately caught off guard by his confident demeanor and thoughtful plans for his future. 

As she is admittedly lost in the world, she begins to accompany Gary to events as a sort of “babysitter” before becoming involved in his business ventures. As their relationship deepens, so do the hijinks they find themselves in.

Unlike some of Anderson’s other films, “Licorice Pizza” dives deep with its humor and is full of innocence, featuring comments on the overly sappy tropes of Hollywood coming-of-age films.

Although these are the acting debuts for both Hoffman and Haim, the two have the on-screen presence of seasoned Hollywood veterans. Hoffman, son of the late, acclaimed actor and frequent Anderson-collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman, effortlessly depicts a semi-successful child star who is simultaneously supremely confident in his business acumen and unsure of the outer world’s perception of him.

The first-time actor carries himself in a way that is sure to remind audiences of a classmate or friend from their past. There is an overwhelming aura of familiarity to the character.

Hoffman’s character of Gary perfectly encapsulates the dichotomy between a teenager’s lack of self-assuredness and total confidence in their ability to succeed. This is the element of the character that makes him so familiar, and what makes the film relatable as a whole. Gary is a dreamer who plans ahead in dramatic fashion, believing in his ability to do anything he wants, while simultaneously questioning every move his counterpart and love interest makes because of his lack of experience.

Alana Haim, of the Grammy-nominated band HAIM, plays a quick-witted young woman who feels perpetually stuck in life. As she works an array of odd jobs over the course of her relationship with Hoffman’s character, she must deal with the trials of living at home as an adult in a house full of not only parents but siblings as well (her character’s sisters in the film are also her bandmates and sisters in reality).

With the central plot point of the film being the relationship between Gary and Alana, there is a clear linear fashion to the way in which the story is told in similar fashion to the films Anderson has cited as influences (George Lucas’s “American Graffiti” and Amy Heckerling’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”). However, the movie unfolds through a series of vignettes that tie in together, as the protagonists’ feelings towards each other ebbs and flows.

The idealized world in which “Licorice Pizza” exists is notably wider than that of Anderson’s previous installment in his filmography: a return to fashion for the director known for his abundance of intertwining characters. In each of the individual adventures Hoffman and Haim find themselves on, there is an array of renowned actors – Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, and Benny Safdie are a few of the familiar faces seen on screen.

Anderson’s rise to prominence has undoubtedly been built through his insights on topics such as greed (“Boogie Nights”), the human experience under capitalism (“There Will Be Blood”), death (“Magnolia”), and religion (“The Master”), so to see his image of unfiltered love and youth is a breath of fresh air to any cinephile.

The score also plays a significant role in capturing the characters’ emotions throughout each scene. The film finds its stride with its music. It transports the audience into the minds of the protagonists, and is warm, familiar, and nostalgic, much like the film itself. Two of the most memorable needle drops in the movie’s runtime are those of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” and Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Let Me Roll It.”

There are points where the audience may experience some fatigue regarding the situations Hoffman and Haim find themselves in. This might be cause for criticism in the eyes of some, but it feels like an accurate representation of teenage angst and the glorification of one’s experiences in their youth. 

“Licorice Pizza” absolutely leaves the viewer leaving the theater with the belief that nobody else in the film industry could have told such a story in the way Anderson does. Overall, it is absolutely worth a viewing.

“Licorice Pizza” will be released nationally on Christmas Day, Dec. 25th, 2021.

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