Review: Licorice Pizza
Clémence Smith finds an irresistible, golden nostalgia in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new coming-of-age drama that seems more an exercise in experience than storytelling.
I first heard of Licorice Pizza (2021) through word-of-mouth; before this point, I hadn’t seen any of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. I also dislike watching film trailers and would much rather go into the cinema blind, so the only thing I knew about the film was that it follows the relationship between a 15-year-old and a 25-year-old.
Licorice Pizza, as it turns out, is so much more than this age gap (which isn’t an explicit plot point) or a coming-of-age story. It is a postcard from the past that exudes and instils a nostalgia for a specific time, even if some viewers won’t have experienced it.
The film’s plot is quite difficult to summarise – this is because the film focuses more on capturing emotion than sticking to any through-line. Even though, two weeks after having seen Licorice Pizza, I cannot vividly remember all the characters’ experiences, I can remember how the film made me feel. The film is set in 1973 San Francisco and we follow high-schooler Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and photographer’s assistant Alana Kane (Alana Haim), witnessing the peaks and troughs of their burgeoning relationship.
…the characters seem to be running towards the audience with their hands outstretched, ready to grab and submerge us in their experiences
One thing that struck me when I saw Licorice Pizza was the sheer amount of running the characters do. Haim, in an interview with The A.V. Club, stated that “when you run so much, it really does get you out of your head and it actually does help with acting”. But running is more than just an actor’s trick of the trade, the characters seem to be running towards the audience with their hands outstretched, ready to grab and submerge us in their experiences.
Watching Licorice Pizza, then, is like seeing your grandparents’ old photos come to life. The characters are intensely realistic; they look and act like people you might meet on your walk to campus. Viewers feel like they can trust Gary and Alana: an unspoken agreement that keeps the film grounded and stops it from becoming a topsy-turvy mess. Yet, this emphasis on relatability contrasts sharply with Bradley Cooper’s garish Jon Peters, who serves as a reminder of how toxic the film industry can really be. Hoffman makes a promising debut on the silver screen, as his charisma keeps the viewer engrossed without ever becoming farcical.
As rumours of Oscars surround the film, I can’t recommend enough that you give it a watch, even if you are sceptical. As its name Licorice Pizza – a slang term for vinyl – suggests, it’s an experience at once colloquial and nostalgic. Anderson’s vibrant sun-kissed universe leaves viewers aching for more.