Hollywood loves a coming-of-age story, good or bad.
They are inherently universal: everyone has to grow up sometimes, leaving behind the weightlessness of youth for the consequences and responsibility of adulthood. The story has countless variations, but chances are someone will find something that they can relate to, regardless of demographic. At the core of many coming-of-age tales is the elemental truth that growing up is hard but worth it, as it will ultimately lead you to the person you were always meant to be.
But what does a coming-of-age story looks like when growing up is constantly deferred?
One might look to Neverland, but Paul Thomas Anderson seeks answers closer to Earth, specifically Encino, California, in the ‘70s. In Licorice Pizza, Anderson fashions the 25-year old Alana Kane (Alana Haim) into a different kind of Peter Pan, someone self-aware enough to know how her disinterest in adulthood looks. When she first encounters the 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) during the high school picture day event she’s working, she treats his brazenly confident come-ons like a joke. Alana tells him point-blank that the two could never be a couple, and her suggestion of a friendship seems like placation. However, she is increasingly drawn to him, his friends, his snake-oil schemes, and his affectations of maturity, and quickly loses herself in what he represents, damn the consequences.
From a bird’s eye view, Licorice Pizza is pretty close to what Neverland might look like on Earth. Anderson builds a world around Alana and Gary that is often intoxicating in its promise of opportunity. It’s a wild reality where young people can cobble together a thriving waterbed business out of nowhere and rub shoulders with Jack Holden (Sean Penn) and Barbra Streisand’s boyfriend Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper). The film’s atmosphere recalls ‘80s teen comedies, but with a dirty glint of glamour from its proximity to Hollywood and a gauzy haze of West Coast chaos. Through Anderson’s direction and script, you can see why Alana is entranced by what Gary offers her: the boundless freedom of youth.
But the world of Licorice Pizza is a disturbing illusion, shattered by the reality that Gary is a child by all reasonable measures. He carries himself like a fast-talking celebrity with charisma leaking out of his ears, but he is still 15 years old. Every element of Alana and Gary’s relationship is wrong, and everyone knows it, especially Alana. She knows she should not be spending so much time with Gary and his teenage friends, and definitely shouldn’t be flashing him when he pressures her. Her jealousy when his pubescent attentions shift elsewhere makes her uncomfortable. And yet, the film considers the possibilities, hopping back and forth over the proverbial line until it’s been wiped from the pavement.
But why? Why not just age Gary up three years so that Alana could indulge her romantic curiosities without being a perverted criminal? It’s a question I asked myself repeatedly after the theater lights went up. My best answer lies in the awkward yet compelling tension beneath Licorice Pizza’s summer breeziness: Alana and Gary’s relationship is a worst-case scenario for someone stuck between embracing and rejecting adulthood. There is something terribly sad and pathetic in how Alana describes Gary – again, a 15-year old – as a business partner, someone who can rescue her from her dead-end job as a picture-day assistant. It’s even worse watching her spiral when she witnesses Gary with a more age-appropriate love interest. Alana commits to the romantic fantasy, and the film empathizes, but she isn’t blind to the corruption happening inside, how her childlike need for validation harms not only her but also Gary.
Anderson walks a thorny rope telling this twisted coming-of-age tale, and the film doesn’t walk away entirely unscathed. Licorice Pizza appears ready to unravel its central ethereal romance in favor of the hard-won truth about growing up. Instead, it seems to backtrack when Alana’s dalliance with the real world doesn’t meet her outsized expectations. Anderson’s ending could reinforce how difficult it is to break free from the fantasies that comfort our inner child, but I’m not sure how well that holds. By no means is a film required to moralize – in most cases, they shouldn’t – but Alana’s arc feels unresolved given her awareness of her circumstances and experiences with Gary.
(Something else that doesn’t hold up is Licorice Pizza’s casual racism against Japanese people. I believe that racism, played for cheap laughs here, should be unpacked within a story or character context. Anderson doesn’t, and it’s a lazy and harmful choice, especially given the violence that AAPI communities currently face.)
My disappointment in the conclusion of Alana’s story stems from Alana Haim’s excellence in the role. She is an absolute fireball on-screen, beautifully capturing the melancholy, irritability, and fear simmering underneath her disaffected demeanor. Her performance has a lovely, lived-in quality, which is even more impressive since it is her feature film debut. Cooper Hoffman leaves a similar impression, commanding the screen with mature confidence that belies his age and experience. Their chemistry is electric and a compelling enough case on its own for rooting for their wildly inappropriate romance. The greatest surprise amongst Licorice Pizza’s sprawling cast is Bradley Cooper. He turns in a delightfully unhinged performance as Jon Peters on some sort of drug high amidst a local gas shortage. It sounds ridiculous, and his appearance could be superfluous in most other hands, but Cooper fully capitalizes on what little screen time he has. He gives enough to warrant a Jon Peters biopic.
Like its title suggests, Licorice Pizza is a challenging mix of sweet and savory. It’s a fascinating film that upends our expectations of the well-worn coming-of-age genre to complicate our understanding of what it means to grow up. Anderson charms us with a beautifully-realized slice of nostalgia and then pushes us to ask questions that should make us uncomfortable. You can ignore them, get swept up in the youthful fantasia, and still have a great time. But Licorice Pizza is best served alongside those nagging questions, becoming something far more essential in the process.