Alana Haim makes a spirited silver screen debut in Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson’s free-spirited (but at times frustratingly dated) teen romance.
2021 seems to be the year of the musician-turned-actress: with her stunning debut performance in Licorice Pizza, Alana Haim (one-third of sister music trio Haim) joins Lady Gaga in the best actress awards season race. Though the film has many questionably dated jokes, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza is a free-spirited teen romance that captures the aimlessness of youth and the nooks and crannies of 1970s Hollywood.
Starring Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman, Licorice Pizza follows 15-year-old child actor Gary Valentine (Hoffman) who is immediately taken with 25-year-old Alana Kane (Haim) when she takes his photo for the high school yearbook. As Gary pursues her and the two drift in and out of love, Gary embarks on several money-making schemes and exploits while Alana hangs on for the ride- often falling into trouble of her own.
In many ways, Licorice Pizza feels like the teen romance answer to Once Upon a Time In Hollywood: it’s filled to the brim with 70s pop culture figures and references – from water beds to gas shortages to a coke-snorting Jon Peters (played by a manic and memorable Bradley Cooper), the film makes sure you know exactly when and were Alana and Gary are falling in love. Anderson’s commitment to paying homage to the 70s is admirable – and certainly not new territory for the Boogie Nights director – but the hazy, free-spirited attitude of the decade works particularly well in highlighting the similarly flighty tendencies of protagonists Gary and Alana.
Their romance is a paradoxically complicated and problematic one: though they’re presented as a classic case of love at first sight, with Gary immediately smitten and in initial relentless pursuit of the (10 years older) Alana, once they get together, Gary begins to drift, leaving us to wonder why someone as smart and beautiful as Alana would stick around and put up with his exploits. Though his traveling salesman speech patterns and money-making schemes are presented as most charming and harmless – a testament to Gary’s tenacity and strength of character – he often comes off as smarmy and precocious, veering dangerously towards flat-out unlikeable. This is certainly by no fault of Cooper Hoffman’s, though – the son of the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman does an effortless job of carrying Gary’s often contrived dialogue and bizarre speech patterns.
The true star of Licorice Pizza, though, is without question Alana Haim as Alana Kane: Gary’s hot-tempered and strong-willed love interest with the mouth of a sailor and a proclivity for wearing tight shirts without bras. She tags along with Gary’s exploits – ever-supportive and down for anything, even as his schemes become increasingly convoluted and he becomes more distant. It’s when she’s apart from Gary, though, that she gets to truly shine – at first when she catches the attention of Sean Penn’s Hollywood bigwig William Holden, and later as a volunteer for the gubernatorial campaign of dreamy local politician Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie) who, unbeknownst to her, is closeted.
As she spends more and more time with Gary and his merry band of teenagers, the film gives Alana Haim plenty of room to make the role her own, and she certainly does – going toe-to-toe in screaming matches, constantly deadpanning and looking down her nose at her sisters, while simultaneously bringing a naïveté and a charming lack of worldliness when running circles of much older (and often much more dangerous) cohorts. Haim is magnetic, full of fire, and shoulders the brunt of the movie’s emotional weight without breaking a sweat – a magnificent and none too easy feat for any actress, not to mention one making her debut.
Outside of Gary and Alana, Anderson populates his world with several eclectic seedy 70s Hollywood characters, including Bradley Cooper’s aforementioned twitchy take on Jon Peters, Skyler Disondo as Alana’s guileless short-term love interest (and Gary’s former co-star) Lance, and a pair of old Hollywood has-beens who entertain themselves by jumping a motorcycle off a flaming ramp on a golf course. There’s a baker’s dozen of these small one-off characters, and though the majority of them make for offbeat and harmless fun, Anderson also features several disappointingly dated characters as well – limp-wristed hip-swinging caricatures of gay men, and the most egregious, a white Japanese restaurant owner who speaks to his revolving door of Japanese wives with an exaggerated accent and mangled syllables.
It’s the kind of gag that one might expect in a film from the 1970s – which is likely Anderson’s intent – but alongside the shameless objectification of Haim’s character, the gay caricatures, and the questionable age difference in the romantic leads (especially considering most of these elements are tertiary at best and wholly unnecessary to the success of the film in general) the ‘jokes’ teeter dangerously towards something that should’ve stayed in the 70s.
Still, though, despite the film’s many dated elements, Alana Haim makes Licorice Pizza more than worth the watch: her energetic performance is a singular debut that is as memorable as it is fiery. Shot in hazy dreamlike hues and chasing each other (and their dreams) around an eclectic 1970s Hollywood landscape, the two young lovers as the center of Licorice Pizza keep Anderson’s film feeling fresh and youthful, even if his sensibilities seem to remain outdated.