a luminous and ethereal adolescent fugue


What have we never said, shown or told about adolescent 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 expectation, it is not so much by the originality of what it tells: a boy and a girl like each other, turn around and end up kissing – the routine usual. It is rather for having seen through adolescence a stronger stake: the incarnation of a youth likely to transcend the times and to regenerate the cinema in itself.

This exaltation, it’s in the Los Angeles of the early 1970s that Licorice Pizza fetches it, deriving its title of “licorice pizza” from an old Southern California record store chain. 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

The stroke of genius Licorice Pizza begins as soon as it is cast. Anderson entrusts the two main roles to beginners: Cooper Hoffman, son of comedian Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014), and Alana Haim, singer and musician of the neofolk group Haim. Through them, he bets on atypical faces, 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 blossoming 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, 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 less 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.

Licorice Pizza, by Paul Thomas Anderson. With Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie (US, 2021, 2:13).

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