By Bradley Lane
Paul Thomas Anderson has become a living legend through his storied career in Hollywood. Receiving nearly universal acclaim for each of his nine feature films, his presence in the film industry is deeply necessary, preserving the type of original adult-oriented storytelling that the blockbusters of the 1970s pioneered. Far from being a traditionalist, PTA specializes in giving audiences something brand new with each film. In the case of his newest film, Licorice Pizza, PTA is looking back to his youth during the 70s in the San Fernando Valley in California. However, Licorice Pizza ends up resembling less of an emotional arc and more a young character growing into a more mature version of themselves through more of a series of vignettes. These segments vary wildly in style but carry a consistent tone and, even more impressively, culminate into something altogether wonderful.
Gary Valentine is a soon-to-be washed-up child actor at the ripe old age of 15, but that won’t stop him from following his dreams of … well, Gary doesn’t know what he wants besides to be successful, whatever that means to a 15-year-old. In most cases it means one off business ventures and get-rich-quick schemes, which he pulls off with surprising efficiency thanks to his charismatic presence. Alana Kane is a 25-year-old without direction or many options to speak of, so when Gary begins a one-sided flirtation with her, he represents the most promising option out of where she finds herself now. And somehow that’s enough for them to spend all of the summer of ’73 together.
To state the obvious, Licorice Pizza is an absolute beauty to behold. Shot in ever so tactile 35mm and utilizing vintage lens to achieve a 70s-esque look and feel, visually it is pure nostalgia. Despite this, PTA does not shy away from the complexities of the era, thankfully not falling into the trap of romanticizing the past. The racism and human rights issues of the era are explored despite the narrative focusing on the emotional state of two white heterosexual main characters. This blend of warm nostalgia and scathing reality follows in the footstep of other period piece coming-of-age films like American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
This strong sense of time and place creates a palpable setting for the emotional arcs of the two main characters to unfold. The film is separated into unofficial segments, so it is not immediately apparent what PTA is getting at by pairing this odd couple together, but throughout the narrative each character is given the context for why they feel the need to be around each other. This gives way to the film’s greatest achievement where the emotional climax ends up feeling like a distant memory in both of their collective minds. A memory full of the warm misremembering of good times past, a time that must have changed each of them, hopefully for the better.
Licorice Pizza is a warm, inviting cinematic experience and is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. – 4/5 stars