While critics have decorated "Licorice Pizza" with appraisal as one of the best films of 2021, the movie has also been subject to social media backlash over the 10-year age gap between the story’s teenage and adult protagonists.
Users on Twitter and TikTok have been quick to scrutinize Paul Thomas Anderson for a relationship that allegedly reflects aspects of grooming and is an example of Hollywood presenting pedophilia without critique.
However, those who see the story as a glamorization of an illegal, "May to December" relationship are most likely watching the film through a darkened window display.
"Licorice Pizza" is a tale of an unlikely, platonic companionship rather than romance, one that borders in between "Harold and Maude" and "Lost in Translation," and strays far from the "Death in Venice" adaptation Twitter users painted it out to be.
At the close of "Licorice Pizza," as the escapism of the theater starts to slip away and the credits reveal the real-life actors behind each character, the 1971 Blood, Sweat & Tears song “Lisa, Listen To Me” begins to play.
At first, all you hear are the yearning instrumentals of early '70s jazz-rock that often signify the bittersweet beginning of an inevitable end. As the lyrics come in, the credits become almost a retelling of the film, a reminiscence for the audience before it all becomes rust and stardust.
The lyrics begin, “Once a girl I knew, all alone and unprepared. Everyone she knew, running scared.”
These lines alone are the perfect characterization of the main protagonist of the film, Alana Kane, who is portrayed by Alana Haim, and the internal struggle she faces trying to let go of adolescence as she is pulled into adulthood.
Her strict parents, bitchy older sister and an array of dead-end part time jobs all seem to tell the 25-year-old Alana there’s no rush in growing up. But what she wants is freedom, especially when the city of angels is waiting right over the mountain from her suffocating San Fernando Valley home.
What’s stopping Alana though, as I’m sure most of us have experienced, is her fear.
That’s where Gary Valentine, portrayed by Cooper Hoffman, enters the picture. He’s a pimply 15-year-old entrepreneur and fading child actor who's a father to his younger brother and a colleague to his single mother.
Caught in his own imaginary crossroads of adolescence, Gary is trying to skip over the teenage years he’s yet to learn the value in. As far as he sees it, what could be more adult than having an adult girlfriend?
The next lines of “Lisa, Listen to Me” come into play, "then she found him, or maybe he found her/His were gentle words she had never heard before."
These words, though placed at the end of the film are the epigraph of "Licorice Pizza," its dinner and dessert – the epitome of its story.
This isn’t a cliche tale of a boy chasing a girl or vice versa, it’s the story of a co-dependent friendship between two people who secretly need each other more than they’re willing to admit.
As the story goes on, both dance their way around a time that proves to be the most pivotal years in either of their lives up until then.
The bond between protagonists mirrors a sibling relationship, equally full of emulation and encouragement. It is built entirely on the interdependency between characters rather than a mutual attraction, which is ultimately absent between the two.
Gary needs an adult to put him in his place and say, "slow down," while Alana needs the opposite.
She has to be shown the power she possesses that’s been put down all her life by the metaphorical walls of her hometown. Throughout the movie she’s able to recognize her self worth and see that it's too valuable to be stuck forever waiting on the unknown.
“You can’t tell somebody not to be offended by something, those offended by the film have every right to be," said Joe Fortunato, a principal lecturer at the Sidney Poitier New American Film School, of the film. "I don’t think we should shy away from life being ugly and unfair on film because then it would be unfair to the filmmakers depiction.”
It’s Gary’s admiration of Alana that inspires her to ask herself the life-changing question, best said by Blood, Sweat and Tears in those non-diegetic lyrics often too true,
“He said, 'Lisa, listen to me, don’t you know where you belong?'”
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Devon is a junior studying management.