Licorice Pizza : the challenges of representing youth on screen

In his movie Licorice Pizza (2021), the filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson decided to tackle a demanding task – filming a teenage romance without entertaining the clichés. 

This is the story of Alana Kane and Gary Valentine, two young people living in California in the early 70s. They meet when Alana is working as an assistant to the school photographer in Gary’s high school. Alana, a 25-year-old girl played by  the musician Alana Haim, immediately insists that they are “not boyfriend and girlfriend”, while Gary, the 17-year-old high schooler played by Cooper Hoffman, is completely charmed by her. The odd pair become sort of friends when Gary asks Alana to be his chaperone for a press event in New York. Gary is an actor and Alana wants to be an actress, so they evolve together in the film industry. They even become business partners and open a shop to sell waterbeds. Their story is touching and funny in a sweet way.

An atypical coming of age movie

Paul Thomas Anderson managed to portray the passage from childhood to adulthood in an unusual way. The director chose Alana to be the main focus of the movie, because he found it more interesting to have a strong 25 year old female lead who, despite her age, still refuses to be an adult. She is obviously torn and she asks her sister : “Do you think it’s weird I spend so much time with Gary and his friends?”. Besides, Gary and Alana seem to be  playing adults. When they create a waterbed business for instance, they do so in a childish way. Their romance is awkward but its innocence makes it touching. The movie does not fall into the clichés, and is far from the TV series that represent teenagers in a completely inaccurate way, casting actors who are 30 years old to play high schoolers. On the contrary, Paul Thomas Anderson shows the real teenage experience, and the movie does not take itself too seriously, which makes it a much more enjoyable, yet atypical, coming of age movie. Teenage love can be bittersweet – like licorice – and it’s refreshing to see an accurate representation of youth on the big screen.

The 70s Hollywood aesthetic

This movie is a tribute to the 70s in California, and more precisely, a love letter to this era of the film industry. With Sean Penn playing an arrogant famous actor, and Bradley Cooper playing a rich producer, the movie makes fun of Hollywood and denounces its flaws. Paul Thomas Anderson created a satyre about the film industry. For instance, Alana is constantly faced with sexist remarks about her physical appearance during castings. Besides, Bradley Cooper’s character is a despicable movie producer living in a mansion and screaming at everyone – which makes for some particularly funny scenes. 

Licorice Pizza is also “joyously nostalgic” (as described by The Guardian). The title refers to the nickname given to vinyl records because of their pizza shape and their black gummy appearance, evoking licorice. It was also the name of a famous record shop in California. The director explained his choice of title: « If there’s two words that make me kind of have a Pavlovian response and memory of being a child and running around, it’s ‘licorice’ and ‘pizza‘”. Therefore, the 70s aesthetic of the movie is a way to show the bittersweet nostalgia of Anderson, who was born in 1970 in Southern California.

Paul Thomas Anderson rose up to the challenge of representing youth on screen, and he did so beautifully. It is easy to tell that he simply had fun while making this movie. It was apparently a success: Licorice Pizza is praised by critics and nominated for 4 Golden Globes awards, including best scenario. 

Rosanna Airiau

Sources :

  • Interview du réalisateur dans Les cahiers du cinéma

Image : ©Affiche du film Licorice Pizza, réalisé par Paul Thomas Anderson, 2022

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