Licorice Pizza is a charming yet unforgivingly problematic addition to director Paul Thomas Anderson’s directorial lineup in what can only be described as a teenage boy’s wet dream.
The film, which is as ’70s as flared jeans and water beds, reimagines a teenage-hood where 15-year-old boys are effortlessly suave, and women can’t help but be enamoured by them, even if they don’t want to. The women in this film circulate around men and are causalities in the chaos of their lives, only to get swept away in the romance. Licorice Pizza follows Gary Valentine, played by Copper Hoffman, a precocious 15-year-old who can’t help but lust over the 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim). Through his continuous attempts to woo her, the two develop an interesting relationship in which they both seem to battle the growing pains of their respective youths.
Licorice Pizza is a strong attempt for Anderson to re-write the scripts of his youth and correct the naivety of his adolescence. In what can only be described as a stellar acting debut, Alana Haim and the consequential Haim family boisterously command each scene, adding much-needed humour to the film. Without their efforts and Alana Haim’s effortless yet crucial addition to the film, Licorice Pizza sits on the line of being problematic. Whilst this film is a reference to Anderson’s high school crush on his art teacher Donna Haim, the problematisation of the age gap within this film doesn’t go unnoticed.
Anderson covertly attempts to distract from the age gap, however, the romantic involvement between the two hangs like a sickening cloud across the film. This may be a film where a 15-year-old is ‘cool enough’ to date a 25-year-old, but it is still problematic even within its picturesque 70’s day-dream aesthetics. The romanticism of this age gap is sorely propelled throughout the film, and rather than critiquing or at least acknowledging the potential power dynamics that are exploited between the two, the film attempts to turn it into a sexy quirk of Gary’s. Despite him being grossly underage, Alana can’t help but be pulled towards him.
Whilst a questionable age gap within films isn’t a new concept or, even to some, a controversial one, this film’s obtuse inability to acknowledge the issue beyond a petty or snarky comment from Alana, which is then read as flirty by Gary, seems grossly reductive and ignorant given the current political state of filmmaking. If the roles were reversed and a 25-year-old male was pining for and flashing a 15-year-old woman, this film would be grossly panned, and the question of whether it should have been made would be asked.
Yet, within Licorice Pizza, this age gap is romanticised and celebrated, leaving a sour taste in your mouth that prevents any of the artistic and cinematic merits of similarly-themed films from being celebrated. If Paul Thomas Anderson didn’t make this film, it would not be getting the same acclaim and recognition. It is another example of how power and privilege allow problematic and controversial stories to seep through Hollywood, a story we sadly know all too well at this point.
Cooper Hoffman is the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and makes his acting debut here. PSH was a frequent collaborator with PTA before he died.