If you’ve seen the trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson’s (“Inherent Vice”) latest film “Licorice Pizza,” you probably remember a brief snippet: two people laying nearly shoulder-to-shoulder on a waterbed, faces turned towards each other, silhouetted hands almost touching. It’s a cute, sappy little thing.
But in the movie, that scene abruptly ends with the girl falling asleep and the boy trying to grope her breast before changing his mind.
I interpreted the moment as simply a reflection of his childishness, his horniness. It wasn’t until I was talking about the film with my girlfriend, days after we’d seen it, that I questioned this.
“What if she was faking being asleep?” she asked me. “Like a test?”
I wanted to say no, to simplify the scene into a transgression of a teenage boy, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t sure. That lack of certainty of the extent to which the two are aware of each other, testing each other, is the driving force of “Licorice Pizza.”
The truth of their relationship, and of “Licorice Pizza” at large, is complicated sometimes.
Like many of the best Anderson films, the plot is nothing more than two infinitely interesting characters colliding, finding themselves unable to stay away from one another and seeing what happens.
This formula (or lack thereof) is responsible for the tautly romantic, intoxicating atmosphere of “Phantom Thread” and the wandering ambiguity of “The Master.” In “Licorice Pizza,” it plays out in episodes of ’70s tropes woven together by the odd companionship between 15-year-old hustler Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, debut) and in-her-twenties-and-still-figuring-shit-out Alana Kane (Alana Haim, of the rock trio HAIM).
Their relationship is definitely romantic despite their gap in age and life experience, but is no less challenging than other Anderson pairs. The two are mutually unsure of their place in each other’s lives but simultaneously feel more recognized together than they do anywhere else in the world.
It’s precisely in these kinds of odd, undefined relationships where the writer-director Anderson thrives; where his indifference toward cliché gives his characters an unmistakable realism. One of the fascinating parts of Gary and Alana’s relationship is the way its ambiguity makes it more, rather than less, palpable to their friends and families. Anderson is adamant about peripheral characters asking Gary if he is dating Alana and vice versa. Their confused hesitation in responding embodies the kind of tension that gives “Licorice Pizza” constant forward momentum, even as the plot (often hilariously) meanders.
The film certainly has its laughs — particularly an episode at prolific producer Jon Peters’s house that exists simply for Bradley Cooper (“A Star is Born”) to clown around in a little mullet. Yet the film is more effective as a study of two young people coming to terms with themselves through each other’s eyes than it is as a ’70s LA hangout flick. What I can’t stop thinking about, even days after my viewing, is the minutiae of Gary and Alana’s behavior towards each other, how their mutual attraction catalyzes just as much frustration.
It becomes hard not to adore how messy the film feels. Gone are Anderson’s signature frame-within-a-frame shots: his use of doors, windows and other physical constraints of his sets to naturally zoom in on a scene. Everything here feels hazier, less concrete.
Alana is often shot in reflections instead, like in the mirror along the wall of a restaurant’s dining area in a pivotal ending scene. This moment is one of the highlights of her performance, the conversation happening on either side of her forcing her to take in shocking information, while the shot only lets us see a dim, muted version of her expression.
The characters themselves are messy too, an indication of the era and the instability of growing up. The way the film includes the anti-Asian racism, particularly pervasive in its era, paints its characters with gritty, sometimes uncomfortable depth. Much has been written about Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins, “Pitch Perfect”), the white owner of a Japanese restaurant, breaking into a gross caricature of an Asian accent in multiple scenes. I wish similar attention was paid to the more important characters’ racist actions too — Gary completely mistakes Frick’s second wife Kimiko (Megumi Anjo) for his first wife, Mioko (Yumi Mizui), Alana literally bows to Kimiko and Gary’s mom writes a rather questionable marketing description of this restaurant, referring to the waitresses as “dolls.”
There’s something honest in this messiness. Anderson wants us to soak in all the details of the time and place in which he grew up, to depict people as who they were rather than who an audience might want them to be.
Honesty penetrates “Licorice Pizza” through and through. It’s honesty that makes Anderson’s characters challenging and harder to follow than most. It’s honesty that leads them to his unique, typically unsatisfying endings. And it’s Anderson’s dedication to complicated truth that leaves “Licorice Pizza” running through my mind, as Gary so often does into Alana’s arms.
Daily Arts Writer Anish Tamhaney can be reached at email@example.com.