Alana Kane and Gary Valentine grow up, run around and fall in love in California’s San Fernando Valley in the 1970s.

Editing: Andy Jurgensen
Jonny Greenwood

Cast: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cinematography: Paul Thomas Anderson, Michael Bauman

In recent times, critically acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson has been known for more dramatic features with films like There Will Be Blood, The Master and Phantom Thread. With his new film, he leans more into the comedy realm that he explored in films like Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love, films which like Licorice Pizza feature unorthodox or inexperienced leads. Anderson has again struck gold as his debuting lead actors anchor this coming of age story with great chemistry and sublime performances.

Set in 1973 in San Fernando Valley, California, Licorice Pizza centres around the relationship between 15-year old aspiring actor and entrepreneur Gary Valentine and 25-year-old Alana Kane. Gary falls for the older Alana at first sight and the pair develop a friendship as Alana chaperones him on a press tour, assists in his scheme to sell waterbeds and other endeavours.

The storytelling of Licorice Pizza was not at all what I was expecting. Rather than an overarching story with a number of characters appearing throughout the film, the story is a series of small misadventures featuring Gary and Alana. This works well because not only is each misadventure delightful, but you have no idea what is going to happen next. This also allows side characters to show up out of nowhere and then disappear without any mention again, not requiring a deep character arc. Bradley Cooper’s portrayal as the film producer Jon Peters being the best example of a character coming in, creating mayhem and/or tension for our primary characters and then disappearing again into the night.

This film would not work without the outstanding performances from the two leads who are simply phenomenal. While in his recent films Paul Thomas Anderson has had two of the most well-renowned actors in Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix leading them, in Licorice Pizza he has two performers making their acting debuts. Alana Haim, the youngest of the sisters from the pop-rock band Haim, is amazing in the role. Funny, sweet and endearing even when she is telling people to “Fuck off” or questioning what someone’s penis looks like. Cooper Hoffman, the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, is sensational as well, winning me over in his opening scene as he asks Alana out, delivering a high level of confidence, but not too much to appear arrogant.

The chemistry between the pair is great and it is clear that there is this special connection between them. Which leads to the elephant in the room: the age difference. It is set up right from the start and it’s pretty clear why it is there: to have a reason why the two characters don’t get together right away. Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to get around this in the film and this is going to turn people on the film, despite them never, in my opinion, going in a direction that is explicitly morally wrong. It is also not exactly new subject matter with the acclaimed Call Me By Your Name and 2020 AACTA Awards’ Best Film Babyteeth both featuring far more explicit relationships between a teenager and an adult. That said, if Gary had been 18 and still in high school, it may be a bit more palatable for some though that may have some ripple effect on other parts of the story. It is a shame though that this story about two people who find themselves constantly drawn to each other is not going to be for everyone.

The film is beautifully shot with Michael Bauman and Paul Thomas Anderson, featuring a number of great long shots with one following Alana around several sides of a building being particularly impressive. The production work is also fantastic with the costumes, sets and design making it feel like it is actually 1973. Licorice Pizza also features a great soundtrack, using music from the time period and had me humming David Bowie’s “Life On Mars?” as I left the theatre.

A delightful story of the inescapable connection between two people, Licorice Pizza will take you on a ride like no other film this year. While it won’t work for everyone, it will definitely hold its own in any conversation about Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film for those it does work for and will have people excited for whatever Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman plan to do next.

Ashley Hobley attended an advance screening of Licorice Pizza thanks to Universal Pictures Australia and Five Star Cinemas.