My first reaction to Licorice Pizza: Alana Haim can pull off a mini-skirt. Her character, Alana Kane, is a casually cool yet combative 25-year-old without direction, much like The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock. She meets Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a charming yet slightly arrogant teenage actor, at his high school picture day. Immediately, we learn that Alana is 10 years Gary’s senior, which makes us slightly uncomfortable; should we root for a potentially predatory romance?

“Their relationship is incredibly dynamic; they oscillate between strangers, friends, and business partners”

Paul Thomas Anderson parallels both Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy by focusing on subtle exchanges and chance encounters, and Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name by highlighting how an age gap introduces themes of both protection and power. While the plot meanders at times, Gary and Alana are compelling and constant. Their relationship is incredibly dynamic; they oscillate between strangers, friends, and business partners. We see Alana bragging about being Gary’s chaperone; then, we hear Gary call Alana a babysitter in an attempt to offend her. (Funnily enough, Haim was Hoffman’s real-life babysitter. In actuality, Haim is 30 and Hoffman 18, just barely a legal adult. While this backstory potentially adds to their on-screen chemistry, it also runs the risk of making them seem more like brother and sister than boyfriend and girlfriend). We see Gary jealous of Alana’s boyfriend, one of his fellow child-actors who’s only slightly older than him; Alana possessive when Gary becomes interested in a girl his own age; and Gary resentful while Alana’s on a date, even though he’s on a date at the same restaurant, just a few tables over.

There’s a throughline of tenderness between them — not to mention Gary’s obvious crush, which is one part physical and two parts emotional. The film is strongest in these vulnerable moments, many of which are completely non-verbal: silent phone calls, lingering looks, and a lot of running. Anderson keeps us engaged by delaying any sort of reconciliation until the very end.

The film, while about the complexities of young love, is also about those same young people trying to earn a living and being entrepreneurial and strategically dishonest as they do so. Gary represents the more idealistic, corporate side of the American Dream, while Alana reminds us of the larger economic and political issues at hand. She condescendingly asks Gary if he “even knows what’s going on” while they both read the news, though the audience sees Gary paying special attention to the sexual advertisements. The scene so cleverly reveals Gary’s physical immaturity, reminding us that he’s a hormonal, 15-year-old boy who makes penis jokes to his friends. And yet, though ten years apart, Gary rivals and at times surpasses Alana in emotional intelligence. He has to be his own spokesperson to survive in show business, while Alana, angsty and disenchanted, still lives with her parents. While at times difficult to overlook, the film subtly minimises Gary and Alana’s age gap and with it, any sort of predation, by placing both characters on the cusp of adulthood.

Licorice Pizza is inherently a ‘period piece’ in its own right, if the 70s count as a period. The plot and setting are fabulously interlaced, with the 1973 Opec oil crisis, the pinball prohibition, and Barbara Streisand’s trendy Jewish nose all playing integral roles. And of course, it wouldn’t be the San Fernando Valley without Hollywood fever, the LAPD, and those steep, winding roads.

“Their first and only kiss is a gesture of innocence and genuine care”

While not the stereotypical ‘coming-of-age’ story, Licorice Pizza does follow Gary Valentine through some milestone moments. In the beginning, he’s getting burgers with his mom and clutching to his child-actor identity by auditioning for acne commercials; in the end, he’s driving a car, wearing a suit, and running a business. He’s no longer pretending to be an adult; he’s becoming one. Once Gary makes this leap in maturity, Alana can finally accept her affection for him by saying “I love you.” Their first and only kiss is a gesture of innocence and genuine care, and the audience is left feeling relieved, not repulsed.


Mountain View

Varsity Valentine's: recommended romantic films

Licorice Pizza, on the whole, achieves its goal of being nostalgic, whimsical, and honest. Haim and Hoffman portray Alana and Gary with skilful ease, despite this being their very first feature film. Though at times entering into absurd adventures, their love for one another makes the film feel deeply relatable. It’s a bond neither right nor wrong, rational nor nonsensical — it’s real.