What hasn’t been said, shown or told about teenage love? If the ninth feature film by American Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, 2007; Phantom Thread, 2017) nevertheless renews the genre beyond all expectations, it is not so much by the originality of what he says: a boy and a girl make out, turn around and end up kissing – the usual routine. It is rather for having seen through adolescence a stronger challenge: the incarnation of a youth capable of transcending eras and regenerating cinema in itself.
This exaltation is in the Los Angeles of the early 1970s that Licorice Pizza will seek it, taking its title of “pizza with licorice” from an old chain of record stores in Southern California. More precisely, the story is set in the San Fernando Valley, where the author, born in 1970, grew up and which he recalls in a retrospective gesture.
Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a high school student and child actor, uses all his nerve to invite the school photographer’s assistant, Alana Kane (Alana Haim), to dinner. He is 15, she is 25, but they both share the same adolescent territory: he, seeking to get ahead of her with an unfailing entrepreneurial spirit; her, still living with her traditional Jewish parents. Without really knowing why, Alana starts hanging out with this endearing kid, who manages his acting career at the same time as other businesses, and starts selling waterbeds with him. Something is making its way between them, in a city teeming with possibilities.
Birth of emotions
Licorice Pizza’s stroke of genius begins with its casting. Anderson cast the two lead roles to debutants: Cooper Hoffman, son of comedian Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014), and Alana Haim, vocalist and musician of the neofolk band Haim. Through them, he bets on atypical physiognomies, whose irregularity contains in itself all the fragility and the prime of adolescence. Successful bet. Anderson captures the tiniest variations on faces and, in them, the birth and efflorescence of emotions.
The film recounts their love while avoiding the blandness of blueness. As soon as they meet, the two get into trouble, communicate through sarcasm, compete with challenges and provocations. But it’s mostly time they find to spend together, with Gary leading Alana into a kind of business companionship. The birth of love, constantly revived by a radiant playlist (The Four Tops, Clarence Carter, David Bowie), coincides here with the era of joyful and uninhibited capitalism, just before it rushed into the wall of the oil shock of 1973.
Children in love rub shoulders with the contiguous world of adults, populated by excessive or grotesque figures. A restaurateur counterfeiting the Japanese accent (John Michael Higgins), an old pooch soaked in his old roles (Sean Penn) or even, in the guise of Bradley Cooper, the personal and completely azimuth hairdresser of Barbra Streisand.
Paul Thomas Anderson signs his least grating film, and undoubtedly the most beautiful: a luminous and airy fugue which consists in unearthing in the chaos of the world the basso continuo of a true feeling.