Oscar-nominated writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson shifts firmly into the coming-of-age genre with Licorice Pizza, a 70s-set narrative following the lives of Alana (Alana Haim) and Gary (Cooper Hoffman) as they run wild and explore the uncertain grounds of first love in the San Fernando Valley.
What works so well in Licorice Pizza is the constant juxtaposition between both Greg and Alana’s respective journeys of love, growth and self-discovery. The narrative follows the relationship between the two of them pretty centrally, but it also takes the time to ensure their respective journeys and goals are fleshed out and explored along the way. You get a good grasp of what motivates each character and where they’re at in their life, which helps ensure you care about what happens to them going forward. In that, the narrative becomes an engaging one – one that’s fun to follow and has you locked in through all of Greg and Alana’s life experiences. Overall, it’s a story with a lot of heart, charm and humour sprinkled generously through each act. There’s a great deal of emotional highs, and some emotional lows, in what is a heartwarming story about first love.
It’s not a flawless narrative though. The first half runs quite smooth, nailing a number of coming-of-age beats that you’d expect to see and delivering a few surprises in the unconventional turns it takes. However, the latter half features a couple of patches that are noticeably slower and detached from the main narrative. One sequence in particular feels like it sucks all of the life and pace out of the film, all for a single development that doesn’t make the detour worth it. Despite the pacing issues in the latter half, it manages to pull things together and deliver a fulfilling conclusion for both our lead characters.
So much of this film rests on the shoulders of our two lead actors, Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman, and they each put in phenomenal performances that elevate the emotion and dialogue of every scene. Their performances are even more impressive when you consider the fact that they both make their acting debut in this film. Alana Haim is no stranger to the spotlight, but acting is an entirely different ball game for her. Then there’s Cooper Hoffman, son of the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who is just beginning to make a name for himself. Firstly, it’s clear that Paul Thomas Anderson really did have Alana Haim in mind for the role when he wrote the character (if the character name wasn’t already a giveaway). She fits the role perfectly, which really allows her to just effortlessly become the character and express every feeling with ease. Her line delivery is always on point and she never misses a beat when it comes to comedic timing. Despite being her first role, she shows some promising range in here, which is most likely where all of her award season buzz is stemming from.
Cooper Hoffman also did a great job – selling the audience on his character’s motivations, drives and life ambitions, to where you believe that he’s a committed 15 year old kid trying to make it big. Alana does steal much of the spotlight, but they do share a great deal of chemistry that naturally builds throughout the film – as it does for their characters. The rest of the cast is made up of celebrity cameos in smaller roles, none of which really make a noticeable impact – especially with so much focus placed on our leading duo.
In the end, Licorice Pizza is a charming coming-of-age comedy/drama proving once again that Paul Thomas Anderson is a master filmmaker with a very delicate touch. His fingerprints are all over this film and every single second, whether I was enjoying it or not, felt entirely deliberate in telling the story he wanted to tell. The narrative can feel a little up and down as it weaves through a number of seemingly unconnected events, but it’s not the events themselves that are the focus – rather it’s how those experiences shape our leads. A heartwarming ride with a sprinkle of comedy, this film is capped off by a spectacular performance from Alana Haim that will certainly be the biggest takeaway for most people.