“Whatever you do, do it carefully,” Alma warns Reynolds Woodcock in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. Throughout the film, the young woman proves herself to be more confident, more self-assured, and more dangerous than she’d let on in that hotel restaurant where she and the older fashion designer first met. She ends up shaping the narrative of their love story, to the point that she’s the one telling it to the audience while Reynolds is yet again sick in bed. She tames him, and creates a cyclical, almost predictable structure for their life together.
The love story in Licorice Pizza is the antidote to Phantom Thread and its toxic yet expertly concocted romance. One of the first things Alana (Alana Haim) tells Gary (Cooper Hoffman) is, “You’re never going to remember me.” She begins their relationship full of doubt—about both herself and him—and those feelings only occasionally fade away. Yet theirs isn’t even a classic tale of first resisting and then succumbing to love; rather, it repeats that structure over and over again, like a video game that takes you back to the beginning every time you fail. In writing Licorice Pizza, PTA lets go of the calculated, fat-free structure with which he approached Phantom Thread or even There Will Be Blood. He embraces his characters’ differences fully, without offering either an ever-after solution (as with the scheduled poisoning of Reynolds) or an absolute end (the death and destruction around Daniel Plainview). It is his most romantic film yet; a movie that cleverly reinvents the romantic comedy; a script that more than deserves the nod for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars.
Many of the scenes that 25-year-old Alana and 15-year-old Gary share are moments of disconnection. Their meet-cute begins with hostility as Alana rejects Gary’s advances, and ends with Alana still rolling her eyes, albeit with a smile on her face. PTA doesn’t shy away from the discomfort that Alana feels being flirted with by a cocky teenage boy—she finds Gary almost offensive and plain weird. They also seem to approach life very differently: He’s highly ambitious and confident about his prospects, while she almost entirely avoids thinking about the future. Yet Gary has decided: He is really, really into Alana, and the way she maintains her integrity and doesn’t try to protect his feelings when he continuously hits on her only makes him like her more.
The sea of differences that separate Alana and Gary render their relationship wholly nontraditional. (To repeat: They meet at a high school, where only one of them is enrolled.) And although some argue that opposites attract, the way Gary and Alana bicker and push themselves away from each other doesn’t support that claim. Yet what emerges through their clashes is something deeper and more meaningful: Together, in a very messy way, they figure out who they are as individuals. With Gary, the lost young adult Alana finds some agency and discovers that she can put herself out there: She becomes an entrepreneur, reveals her acting talent, successfully backs a truck down a winding hill in Los Angeles, and realizes how dangerous the world of adults can be. Gary, too, becomes a fuller person. As Alana entertains dalliances with other men throughout the movie, Gary is forced to learn about restraint and letting others make their own decisions, something that the hustler and seducer in him has a hard time with. His biggest lesson comes when he stops himself from touching her breast when she’s not looking—a scene that PTA writes as a comical yet meaningful moment of suspense through which Gary grows up. In fact, their entire relationship exists in this realm of suspense and uncertainty: They have no clear direction together, they don’t know what they are to one another, Alana often finds Gary very annoying, and although he brings the idea of fate into the picture, confusion seems to be the real guiding principle.
PTA has always had a particularly keen eye for historical and cultural context, and in Licorice Pizza, California in the early 1970s is the backbone of the relationship between the two protagonists. The film’s excellent soundtrack helps re-create the sense of freedom and softer morals that defined the decade, and on the face of it, it almost feels as though PTA wanted to challenge contemporary political correctness by setting his film in that time and featuring a relationship with an age gap, overt racism, homophobia, and police brutality. Yet his writing makes it clear that he’s not simply nostalgic for a past era—something much subtler and more complicated is at play.
The illegality of Alana and Gary’s relationship is only the most superficial way in which the different, confusing, and sometimes backward mentality of the time influences the story. Gary’s scamming attitude and “song and dance man” act echo more loudly how powerful liberal capitalism and commercial entertainment were at the time—and how they shaped men in particular. He expects everything to be available to him, be it money, accolades, or girls. In that way, he’s not too dissimilar from Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins), the American man opening a Japanese restaurant and using a horribly offensive Japanese accent when addressing his immigrant wives; or from Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), a swaggering, violent buffoon who can’t stop talking about how he’s dating Barbra Streisand. They all feel entitled and PTA frames their racism, misogyny, and sense of superiority as consequences of that. In contrast, the writer-director signals Alana’s difficulty in navigating this sexually liberated yet macho world subtly and overtly. When the school photographer slaps her on her behind after she’s met Gary and she barely registers it, PTA isn’t trying to make a grand statement about feminism, but rather highlight how casually absurd a woman’s experience could be: In the ’70s, flirting and affection could so swiftly be succeeded by unrestrained degradation.
In their encounter, Alana and Gary confront their opposing places in society directly. When Alana struggles to sell a waterbed to a customer on the phone, Gary suggests she talk sexier, which she proceeds to do successfully despite her simmering anger toward him. In turn, Gary becomes possessive and annoyed that she can so easily flirt with a customer. He indirectly discovers what misogyny and objectification are and how they can affect him, too. Every big clash that separates them is, in fact, due to their preconceived ideas of what society has told them they should want and deserve. After Gary has a fling with a more age-appropriate girl, Alana gives acting a real chance, both to spite Gary and to satisfy her own shaky ambitions. She also accepts an invite to go out with an older, respected actor she meets at an audition, Jack Holden (Sean Penn), and parades their flirtation in front of Gary, at the restaurant she knows is his second home. In that moment, she’s also trying to fit into one of the roles available to ambitious women at the time: that of the ingenue whom older men can project their twisted and self-aggrandizing ideals onto, and whose success is dependent on men. After Holden tells her she reminds him of Grace Kelly, he proceeds to talk at her about his past cinematic glory, not even acknowledging Alana when she asks, “Are these lines or is this real?” Guided by PTA’s writing, Haim performs both the role of the mindless sex object and that of the confused and dismissed woman perfectly, switching from one to the other as naturally as many women have learned to do. And while Alana feels the pain of limiting herself to an idea, across the room, Gary is going through his own realization. An actor himself, he usually behaves similarly to Holden when he visits this bar; he probably aspires to be Holden. Yet on this evening, all he can see is how far he’s pushed his friend away; how she’s not being true to herself because of him.
PTA manages to delicately weave this complex social context with romance because while Alana and Gary’s different positions in the world keep driving them apart, what brings them back together can’t be reduced to circumstances or ambitions. To put it simply, they remain together because they realize that they care about each other. Calling them soul mates might seem counterintuitive, but the way PTA portrays their connection as based on a kind of care that allows them both to grow gives new meaning to the expression. When Jack Holden rides off on his bike and ignores the fact that he’s let Alana fall behind, Gary sprints to her aid, worried only about her safety. In such moments, when they both notice their feelings for each other, PTA makes the world that has so profoundly shaped them fall away. In slow motion, they come together and remain speechless, as though neither they nor PTA have a good word for what they are sharing. What follows these suspended moments is pure glee, in which the director writes the characters going against the current, running against the flow of the crowd or through the city to find each other. We’ve seen these kinds of romantic chases before, but PTA deepens their meaning by making them about breaking free from not only one’s environment, but also from one’s preconceived ideas of what they want and need.
In the 2004 romantic comedy Along Came Polly, Ben Stiller plays Reuben, a risk-assessment expert whose presumptions about adult life and relationships are shaken when he meets the wild and freewheeling Polly (Jennifer Aniston)—she’s the Gary to his Alana, making him uncomfortable in an often salutary way. Stiller’s best friend Sandy, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is an ex–child actor still living off the glory he achieved as a kid, convinced of his own dubious coolness. And yeah, it may be a stretch to imagine Licorice Pizza as a prequel to Along Came Polly and Cooper Hoffman as playing the younger Sandy, but the parallels and differences between the two films are notable and telling in regard to PTA’s writing. At the end of Along Came Polly, Reuben learns to loosen up and Polly gets her life more organized—they both shape-shift a little while accepting the other’s peculiarities. In Licorice Pizza, after Alana and Gary make up one last time (in the time frame of the film at least), it isn’t long before Gary is making her roll her eyes once again. PTA doesn’t promise us they will be happy together forever after or that they will even get all that used to each other’s annoying tendencies. It seems highly unlikely that either of them will ever fundamentally change. But Alana and Gary do exchange a kiss, a sign that perhaps, somehow, they will always care for each other.
Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.