Licorice Pizza is now showing in selected theatres nationwide.
At what point does any film become a bonafide classic? Is it a few days after its release? or is it years after it hit our cinema screens? As I sat through the final credits in a dark auditorium, these questions surrounded my thoughts on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza. But as I walked into the light, the answer became clear; what makes a movie an instant classic is that very thought process as you sit through the entire credits, not wanting to leave. Some movies have the power to capture a time and a place like no other, placing their audience in a time capsule where the modern world around them evaporates for two hours. Licorice Pizza, just like Stand By Me, Almost Famous, Dazed and Confused and American Graffiti, is one of those movies.
Licorice Pizza couldn’t feel more different to Anderson’s previous movie, The Phantom Thread, yet both share Anderson’s trademark style. After all, both place the viewer in a bubble of period drama that is less about the plot and more about the atmosphere, interpersonal relationships and characters. Across his work, Anderson offers us meaningful journeys over a rush for completion. He allows the lives of his characters to unfurl like a flower in spring with moments of ferocious energy, intimacy and beauty. As a result, we are never quite sure what’s coming next as he weaves, dips, and dives around the vivid full-bodied characters he brings to the screen.
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Licorice Pizza introduces us to the teenage Gary, a precocious young businessman and entrepreneur who floats through the San Fernando valley bathing in the opportunities it offers. Meanwhile, the older Alana sits in a void between her teenage life and adulthood, desperately seeking the right route while questioning her sense of belonging throughout. Both characters embody a different coming-of-age journey, one delayed in its onset and another speeding forward with no functioning brakes. However, what makes Licorice Pizza even more fascinating is the interaction between their journeys and the social change and liberalism of the 1970s. Here the freewheeling and creative drive of a decade that often made the sixties look tame is beautifully reflected as young people seized control of the social and political reigns.
Interestingly, many modern commentators have raised the age gap in Gary and Alana’s relationship as a problem; this is not surprising but, in my opinion, misjudged. After all, while our modern world may view teenagers as a mere extension of the child due to a continuingly expanding notion of childhood. The 1970s viewed teenagers of Gary’s age as politically and socially active young adults with a range of responsibilities. Therefore, to criticise the film on this level is to misunderstand the decade and the teenage experience born from 70s culture and social change.
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In Licorice Pizza, both Gary and Alana seek security in different places. For example, Gary needs an older woman who understands his drive for success and sees beyond his age. While Alana needs the energy and enthusiasm of youth as she defies the expectation to settle down. Here Gary and Alana complement each other and offer the security and belonging they both need to progress and achieve. Their love is uneasy, non-physical yet passionate, as it bubbles under the surface, with both unable to vocalise why they need each other so much.
Licorice Pizza is far more than an exquisite coming-of-age tale. It’s a series of fun, poignant and painful memories played out on screen for all to see. The result is a sun-drenched trip back to a decade where anything seemed possible, and rules were made to be broken. Here Licorice Pizza isn’t just a sublime coming-of-age love story; it’s a misty-eyed reflection of something we seem to have lost, a sense of teenage freedom, hope and adventure.
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