The story of Alana Kane and Gary Valentine growing up, running around and going through the treacherous navigation of first love in the San Fernando Valley, 1973.
There’s not much in the way of plot where Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” is concerned. Boy meets girl and a free verse poem ensues. No, Anderson isn’t as interested in telling a linear story so much as trying to recreate a particular time and place, namely the San Fernando Valley in the mid-1970’s. The clothes, the cars, the music, are all of this era yet there’s a knowing sense about this age that permeates the film giving it a time capsule feel that only a very few movies are able to create.
The meet-cute Anderson employs is clever if nothing else. Alana Kane (Alana Haim) works for a photography company that specializes in taking school pictures. While at San Fernando High School she crosses paths with sophomore Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), who’s instantly smitten with her. Trailing after her, touting his good qualities, insisting that they will ultimately be a couple – Anderson’s constantly tracking camera capturing it all – Gary is assured and charming. However, Alana won’t give him the time of day due to the age difference – 10 years- between them. Yet despite her judgement, she finds she can’t get him off her mind and is intrigued by the persistent young man, despite her better judgement.
What ensues are a series of vignettes in which not much happens in terms of plot, but the incidents show Alana and Gary getting to know each other and, no surprise, fall in love. They hang around, go to a local restaurant that becomes “their place,” she serves as his chaperone on a trip to New York, they form a company, bicker as business partners and reconcile. Alana gets jealous when Gary shows interest in a girl his age, he’s irate when she starts hanging out with a Hollywood has-been (Sean Penn) and bond when they have to contend with a pompous producer (Bradley Cooper). They fight, they make up, they flirt but most importantly they come to realize that more than anything else, they can count on one another no matter what the circumstances.
There’s no shortage of laughs, Anderson’s wry sense of humor prevalent throughout. Awkward situations abound, Alana and Gary’s uncertainty about where they stand with one another the through-line that generates one delightful conflict after another.
The camera simply loves Haim and Hoffman. They both have that indefinable “it” quality that translates to the screen, our eyes drawn to them, a natural sense of charisma emanating from both. Each has a promising future in films if they wish to pursue it but I don’t think I’ll be the only one who associates one with the other from here on out. They make that big an impression as a couple here- the natural way they interact, the innate way they make one another better without detracting from themselves, the fact that we WANT Alana and Gary to be together- all of this is due to the natural chemistry Haim and Hoffman display. They are truly a delight.
On the surface, “Licorice Pizza” is a coming-of-age film where both Alan and Gary are concerned. But in my mind, I imagine it as something of a highlight reel or memory book compiled by Alana and Gary, one they are looking back on today, reveling in the memory of those first days of their relationship when the sense of discovery about one another was more exciting than any physical connection. And though these memories couldn’t have the same emotional impact on me, I’m still glad they were shared so that I might remember my own.