The valley has become a cultural punching bag. Epitomized by “valley girl” films that portray the San Fernando Valley as filled with vapid teens and suburban sprawl, what the valley means to anyone outside of it has become distorted by the perception of vocal frys and saying “like” in between every other word. Thanks to films like Valley Girl and Clueless, which depict this exact stereotype while wrapped in ‘80s and ‘90s nostalgia, this hyper-exaggerated image has stuck in people’s minds. But anyone who’s lived in the valley can tell a very different story. That’s exactly what Paul Thomas Anderson has done in Licorice Pizza, the 1970s coming of age film set entirely in the valley I know.
While it takes place decades before I lived there, the valley is a place that defies time. One intersection could be littered with modern outlets while another is home to vacant lots, colorful liquor stores, and a restaurant from the 1970s. Licorice Pizza introduces us to a different, better kind of valley girl. Alana, played by Studio City native Alana Haim, represents a familiar valley girl that I feared I might one day become: Stuck, surrounded by people and a place you feel you should have outgrown.
The valley, ironically enough, is an easy place to get stuck in. It’s a place where every second feels like forever, but where years go by in an instant. Licorice Pizza plays with time like the uneven thing it feels like as a young adult. Anderson, a valley boy in every sense, is able to grasp this feeling better than any other filmmaker. Anderson, while from Studio City, attended schools throughout the valley as a child and has been outspoken in his fascination with the place. He treats the valley not as an existing cultural touchstone but as the place it truly is: A place that alternates between desolation and tight-knit communities, enveloped in a casual culture that lacks the intensity of the rest of Los Angeles. Through this background, Alana is allowed to be lost in the way many valley girls are. She is frustrated and warm and messy and uncertain in a deeply funny, human way that defies previous misconceptions.
This isn’t the first time Anderson has depicted his home. Boogie Nights plays up the porn industry for which much of the valley became known in the 1970s. Magnolia also returns to the valley, focusing more on the mosaic of characters that inhabit it. But Licorice Pizza feels different from these because its valley acts not just as a place but as a hometown.
Licorice Pizza is not a love letter to the valley, and that’s a good thing. Sherman Oaks and Encino are not romanticized. There are no sweeping shots from the mountains over the thousands of nestled homes. The beauty in the valley comes from running distances where it feels like the land will never end. Anderson’s films often return to this motif, emphasizing the vast surroundings his characters travel through. But it feels much warmer and familiar when set in his hometown. The beauty comes from wide streets and tiny shops you could walk by every day and never step inside. It’s a place you become numb to and can swear you hate, but struggle to say anything bad about to a person who isn’t from there.
Growing up is a deeply weird thing. It’s no wonder coming-of-age films are one of the most reliable genres. Every individual experience feels so deeply strange and emotional that filmmakers can’t help but reflect on their own specific transition from adolescence into adulthood. It’s an experience that is both intensely personal and specific yet entirely relatable to anyone. As a kid or teenager it feels like it happens in one giant wave, but it’s only something you can truly reconcile with in hindsight.
When I tell people growing up in the valley is weird I often say “It’s hard to explain.” It’s difficult to get into the emotional feeling of living in the shadow of something greater, but being encompassed by the world around you that’s so dry and bright and unlike any other city. But while I have never started a waterbed business with my friends and delivered one to Jon Peters, I somehow feel like I have. Surreal brushes with fame become a casual experience to tell your friends about years down the line. The valley is where the chaos and celebrity-ness of Los Angeles leaks down into. Licorice Pizza resonates so strongly because of its skill in depicting the atmosphere of the valley when you’re young: Experiencing everything and processing nothing.
When I tell people I’m a valley girl I say it as a joke. That term feels far removed from how I think of where I’m from. The valley is so wrapped in other people’s perceptions that it feels like outsiders have already made a judgment on what life there must be like. That’s exactly what feels so cathartic about Licorice Pizza: It’s a film free of the judgment and influences of other valley depictions. When I saw Alana sitting alone on the curb, watching Gary and his friends dance in the dusk after a death-defying drive down the canyons, I saw that Licorice Pizza understands the isolation and chaos of my hometown, but also the humor and joy. It’s a moment that’s beautiful and sad, but punctuated by a joke when Peters returns. The film never takes on any point of view but the one of someone who knows the valley for exactly what it is: A strange place that is given life by the people tied to it. The valley is a waterbed shop that appears, then one day becomes an empty storefront, and the next becomes a lively arcade.
After a film so defined by chaos and small moments that culminate into one story, it’s the final shot that cemented my love for Licorice Pizza. The film ends with one of those rare moments where you finally feel at peace. As Gary and Alana walked into that brilliant blue evening I felt a wave of calm wash over me. Anderson captured that loving and uncertain valley moment that feels like it lasts forever until one day, it’s years in the past. It was the moment I’ve so often failed to describe with words or photos. In all my searching, the closest I can get is: It’s home.
Leila Jordan is the TV intern for Paste Magazine. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila