Set in the San Fernando Valley in the early 1970s, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film Licorice Pizza is so evidently a love letter to the Hollywood time period that Anderson grew up in. The film follows Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) who is a charismatic child actor… except he’s now 15, and is slowly losing his childlike edge and looks that got him cast in the first place. Then during picture day at his high school he meets Alana (Alana Haim), an older girl who seems to be a bit aimless in life, by bouncing from job to job and desperately trying to get out of the town she grew up in. Gary quickly falls head over heels in love with Alana, before she quickly humbles him into realizing the age difference between the two. The rest of the film delicately explores a “will they, won’t they, should they?” dynamic that is coded in angst, heartache, and wildly entertaining misadventures.
Just to put my cards on the table right away, Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite working director today and maybe even of all-time. The man has simply never made anything that hasn’t been an absolute masterpiece in my eyes. So with all of that being said, I was immediately fascinated to hear that his newest film was going to be a coming of age movie.. especially considering his last film was about an egocentric fashion designer in London. And now that I’ve seen it, I can honestly say it’s the type of movie that reminds you why you love movies. Every single second of this film is so infectiously charming and entertaining, all the while being matched with the absolutely insane talent and craft that Paul Thomas Anderson always brings to the table as a director. From amazing tracking shots to lush cinematography and an expertly used soundtrack, this is a film that’s as equally entertaining as it is technically perfected.
Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim both give extraordinary performances here, especially considering it’s both of their feature-film debuts. But it’s when they share the screen together and the chemistry simply oozes off the screen. Every moment they spend together, whether it’s getting into trouble together or sharing an intimate conversation with each other, is absolute cinematic magic and reminds you how infectious it is to watch two amazing performers simply work off of one another. There is a whole star-studded supporting cast featured here as well, from Tom Waitts to Sean Penn to Benny Safdie – but Bradley Cooper also nearly steals the whole show with his brief appearance that had me laughing so hard that I cried.
The film pulls off an incredibly impressive balancing act that works as both a love letter to this certain point in time for Hollywood as well as an extremely tender and emotional coming of age story. I usually think being “accessible” to modern audiences is a bit of an overrated idea, but I think Paul Thomas Anderson truly found a sweet spot with Licorice Pizza, a film that plays so well with an audience but will be an absolute critical and awards darling this time next year. Far and away one of, if not my absolute favorite film of the year so far.