Los Angeles: the kingdom of the stars, and those trying to make it, too. A place that today has beautiful beaches, beautiful people, and endless sprawling roads with bumper-to-bumper traffic. It seems at once glamorous and ugly. Filmmakers have an endless fascination with it as, more often than not, it’s the place where they make their films. Licorice Pizza, however, celebrates a different side to LA: that seen through the eyes of a teenager living there. Set in the sun-drenched 1970s, LA is still a place of opportunity, but the opportunities offered are for much stranger things.
The film opens with a scene reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore– a busy school where everyone is in motion, but most of all the central characters of the film- Alana and Gary. For every ball of wit he serves her, she returns it, with precision, and without losing a drop of sweat. He is daring: fifteen years old and trying to charm a woman ten years older, who is only at his school to help take the school photos. Yet, something about Gary interests her. Maybe it’s because of his boundless enthusiasm or maybe it’s because all the men she meets are shallow and immature. Both Alana and Gary are at turning points in their lives, constantly shape-shifting – actor, waterbed salesman, campaign aide, or arcade entrepreneur- trying to find out who they want to be, all the while dashing around Los Angeles together amidst a fuel crisis.
Gary of course falls in love with Alana. Whilst he is wise beyond his years, he is still in every way an authentic teenage boy: reluctant to tell her his feelings, yet willing to ask her to show him her boobs. He is in limbo- stuck between the child star he was, and the grown-up he wants to- but is not allowed to be. Cooper Hoffman is perfect in the role, capturing Gary’s enthusiasm for life and his childish confidence about it. With his shaggy hair and acned chin, Gary feels every bit like the jokester we all had in our year at school.
It is understandable why Alana (Alana Haim) warms to him so much even if she doesn’t admit it: “Do you think it’s weird that I hang out with Gary and his friends all the time?”. Haim’s performance is a little stiff in the first few scenes, but as the bond between her and Hoffman grows throughout the film, she relaxes into herself. Director, Paul Thomas Anderson, decided to use Haim’s sisters as her siblings in the film which brings an element of realism to the home scenes, and a natural zip to the conversations, that could only be obtained through decades of sisterly arguments.
Not everything about the film is perfect, however. The scenes that take place in the Chinese restaurant have been called borderline racist by some, (even if the director just says it is “of the time”). Moreover, the age gap of the film’s central romance is somewhat questionable, even more so if you reverse the genders of the characters. Yet Liquorice Pizza gets away with it as they keep the relationship so chaste. Amongst the bizarreness that surrounds them, Alana and Gary’s relationship is able to make sense in a Harold and Maude way. As much as it is Gary’s coming-of-age story, it is also Alana’s, even if she is ten years older than we would expect. Life can be as confusing in your twenties as it was when you were a teenager. She is as much trying to figure herself out as he is.
Image courtesy of Licorice via Pxhere