Writer / director Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “Licorice Pizza” is a film that feels casually comforting, like a warm blanket of nostalgia. It’s pure and genuine in a way that will make you want to reminisce about fond moments from your own teenage years. This coming-of-age story puts an original spin on the classic boy meets girl romance, with organic (and noteworthy) feature debut performances from the two leads.
California, 1973. It’s yearbook photo day, and 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is convinced in love at first sight when he meets Alana Kane (Alana Haim), the twentysomething photographer’s assistant. He wants to take her to dinner, and he won’t take “no” for an answer. After reluctantly showing up out of curiosity, Alana and Gary quickly become friends. Hanging out together in San Fernando Valley, the pair are side-by-side for a series of adventures and schemes that include a pinball business, mayoral campaign, waterbeds, film auditions, cross-country plane trips, and a gas crisis.
The plot is loose, but not messy. In terms of narrative structure it’s all over the place, but the unexpected avenues the film takes is part of the joy of the ride. Anderson’s strong dose of nostalgia is fully realized through his thoroughly developed characters. He takes great care to give extreme detail to every aspect of his script and characters, which lends an enviable richness to his storytelling. He also does a great job directing his actors.
Hoffman and Haim’s performances radiate an awkward confidence that’s charming and relatable, especially when it comes to exploring the experience of a first love (and the acknowledgement that there’s a line that simply cannot be crossed due to the age difference). Their chemistry is authentic, and they make Alana and Gary feel like cinematic characters who are destined to become cult classics, if not instant favorites. The supporting cast of big name heavy hitters is terrific too, with Sean Penn showing up as a William Holden-esque, Old Hollywood actor, and Bradley Cooper portraying a hilariously exaggerated version of Barbra Streisand’s then-boyfriend, Jon Peters.
The cinematography (from Anderson and Michael Bauman) is handsome, and the film looks as if it was plucked from a 1970s Hollywood time capsule. The golden-hued settings instantly transport you back in time. Visually, everything about this film feels vintage in the most pleasingly sentimental way. It’s gorgeous to look at, so see this one in 70mm if you can.
Anderson thankfully sticks to his recognizable directorial style, and it’s clear this is the work of a confident filmmaker who’s relishing the chance to have a little fun. He’s known for his technically proficient, long tracking shots, and boy, are there plenty here. They’re showy yet not at all distracting, which is something I can’t say about some of his earlier works. Anderson flips the script on expectations when it comes to the subject matter, as this film is his most optimistic. This isn’t heavy and dark, but light and hopeful.
Big screen love stories have been told for ages, but “Licorice Pizza” is different and refreshing. It’s a lot of fun to watch, and the attention to detail makes it memorable.