Any Paul Thomas Anderson film is a major event for cinephiles. The director is an auteur spoken about in the same breath as Kubrick and Scorsese. However, while I’m a huge fan of his earlier films, such as Boogie Nights and Punch Drunk Love, his more recent output is harder to love.
The Master (2012) and Phantom Thread (2017) feel esoteric and slow, while hippie detective mystery Inherent Vice (2014) is just too damn confusing. These all greatly reward repeat viewings, but I was hoping to love Licorice Pizza straight out of the gate.
While it’s Anderson’s most entertaining film since Punch Drunk Love, it’s not quite a masterpiece. The ‘70s-set film follows the friendship between self-assured teenager Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) and twenty-something slacker Alana Kane (Alana Haim) in the San Fernando Valley, California.
Some have found the quasi-romance between a 15-year-old and a 25 year old questionable, but the relationship sensitively handled, and, all told, quite innocent. In many respects, Gary is far more adult than Alana, a go-getting entrepreneur compared to her late-blooming underachiever. Anderson is unafraid to explore the blurry lines between childhood and adulthood. This is a ‘coming-of-age’ movie that actually questions what it means to come of age.
Amusingly, it’s the older characters who appear the least mature, whether it’s Sean Penn as the daredevil movie star Jack Holden, or an unhinged Bradley Cooper as womanizing producer Jon Peters (both based on real-life people).
Anderson has long been considered an actor’s director and, here, he’s pulled off quite a feat: drawing astonishing debut performances from his newcomer leads, with Haim, in particular, delivering a firecracker of a turn. It’s their interplay that keeps the film engaging throughout. In terms of the narrative, however, the film is somewhat lacking, coming across more like a series of vignettes than a single compelling story.
It could be argued that the film is meant to evoke the hazy, directionless feel of youth, and comparisons have been made to the teen movies of Richard Linklater. However, Linklater gives his movies a clear framework to work in, whether it’s the last day of school (Dazed and Confused) or the weekend before college begins (Everybody Wants Some!!). Here, however, it’s hard to tell how much time is flying by and the plot feels unfocused as a result.
Despite the loose storytelling, the film is very successful in its evocation of the ‘70s and can make you nostalgic for a period you may not have been around for. With its grainy celluloid cinematography and charming jukebox soundtrack, this is the closest thing to time travel we have.
It’s a film that is free of cynicism, proudly holding its heart on its sleeve. If you’re a romantic at heart, you’ll find it hard not to leave the theatre smiling.
A sweet, if meandering, look at young love and the messiness of growing up, this is Paul Thomas Anderson’s most enjoyable film in decades. It may not be the auteur’s best and feels slightly too episodic, but rides high on the charm of its leads. Grab a slice while you can.
Bruce Micallef Eynaud is the creative director at VSQUARED and is also a filmmaker, working mainly in commercials and short films. He’s also a movie geek with an MA in Film Studies. His favourite filmmakers are Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson and Richard Linklater.