Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) fusses over his hair with a comb in the boy’s restroom mirror. It’s picture day at Gary’s San Fernando Valley high school, and the snake-charming little hustler—15 in age but pushing 30 in spirit—would likely not be able to live with himself if he didn’t look like a million bucks. Even just to sit up straight and force a smile at an underpaid, overworked, middle-aged photographer, whose vocation capturing portraits of children was not where he once thought his artistic career would take him. But Gary Valentine is still young and driven enough to have dreams, young enough to see the world tinted in shades of fuchsia and gold. Or even a mousy brown, as Alana Kane (Alana Haim) saunters, incensed, past the line of teens that Gary is a part of, all waiting to have their picture taken. Teens who could not be bothered to give the poor Tiny Toes photography worker a simple “no thank you,” as she half-heartedly—clearly exasperated—offers them a hand-mirror so that they might give their appearance any last-minute touches.
Gary, experiencing an intense attack of love-at-first-sight, hurries over to Alana. He takes her up on her offer of that mirror, even though he had already fixed himself up with the one in the bathroom just minutes earlier. So, Gary is able to strike up a conversation with the impatient, willful girl he’s soon proclaiming to his friends that he’ll marry someday. For a few moments, the camera frames both of their faces side-by-side, Gary’s in the reflection of the hand mirror running a comb through the mop on his head, next to Alana’s as she holds the mirror. In more obvious terms, it’s a simple composition meant to signify the events to come in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza—an unconventional love story between a boy who’s been forced to grow up before he should have, and a girl who’s stuck in an arrested development; a collage of brief snapshots of their disordered lives in Anderson’s beloved San Fernando Valley, as they simultaneously struggle to come of age.
But the mirror scene, which indicates the pair’s impending connection, also reveals the crux of their tumultuous, unorthodox quasi-romance, and the core of a film which seems to effortlessly flit between planes of reality. In the shot, Alana and Gary are not really side-by-side. Beside Alana is a reflection of Gary, while the real Gary is just out of frame, sweet-talking his way into a not-quite-date with a young woman who is, against her better judgment, caught up in the peculiar charms of a teenage boy offering her the kind of attention that men her age can’t quite give. Alana is taken by this reflection of Gary, this reflection she holds—quite physically—in the palm of her hand. It’s a reflection of Gary hinged on an extension of oneself that manifests as an idea of romance. It’s a view of the world and of people that isn’t really real, but can be deeply felt during the melodramatic extravagance of youth.
Alana and Gary meet somewhere in the middle of their own internal crises. Alana is at a precarious time in her early 20s (perhaps mid-20s, but that seems unlikely; when Alana finally reveals her age to Gary during the film’s opening, there is an almost unnoticeable hesitance between “Twenty” and “Five,” and her behavior comes off as decidedly younger than that), where the siren song of puerility beckons her to a life of hedonistic pleasure, unburdened from the stuffy adult world that she’s hopelessly joined to. Gary, whose money mindset and larger-than-life ambitions in Hollywood entrepreneurship partly stem from having to take care of himself and his younger brother in the absence of adult supervision, is awash in the romanticism of adolescence. Gary’s affection and the friendship that the two lost souls strike up allow Alana to remain comfortably in the arms of youth, at least for a little bit. When they first connect in that high school gymnasium on picture day, Alana expresses reluctance and establishes clear boundaries between herself and this teenager, while still goading him to see what else he’s got to sell her. She finds herself intrigued by his salesmanship and his old soul schtick.
Thus, Alana is pulled to Gary, despite everything telling her that she shouldn’t be. Charmed by the chutzpah of their first encounter, she shows up at Gary’s age-inappropriate haunt, Tail o’ the Cock, still maintaining space between them through her trademark acerbic flippancy. But as the two talk, that space begins to narrow. The boundaries Alana initially establishes begin to weaken as she opens herself up to the kind of attention that Gary can offer her, the kind that other men can’t—or at least, don’t. There’s more to Alana’s attraction than experiencing a romantic tug towards someone that toes an ethical line. Gary sees Alana through this beautifully impermanent lens that begins to dim with age; one Alana desperately craves like an addict seeking a fix. Gary both wants to know Alana fully as a person and also romanticize her. Alana’s brief boyfriend Lance (Skyler Gisondo), her almost-co-star Jack Holden (Sean Penn), and the local politician she volunteers for Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), all become conduits through which Alana attempts to recapture Gary’s idealistic view of her. “You remind me of Grace,” Jack simmers at Alana, attempting to seduce her, after Alana auditions for the part of “Rainbow” in a new film alongside the aging star. Nearly flattered beyond words, Alana barely manages to choke out “…Kelly?”
Alana just wants to be someone’s dream girl. But it’s clear during the scene where Jack takes Alana on a date to Tail o’ the Cock, where adult male immaturity and self-obsession rears its ugly head, that Alana cannot get her fix with older men. Gary, there with his age-appropriate date, is taunted wordlessly across the room by Alana, the two having recently had a falling-out during the opening night of Gary’s waterbed emporium. Alana, donned in a skimpy bikini meant to act as a sexualized device to entice customers inside, was eventually dismissed by Gary for a teen girl he knows from school. Fast-forward to Tail o’ the Cock, and Alana’s sticking her tongue out at Gary like a petulant toddler. Her arms are urgently flung around Jack’s neck, her face pressed against his, to prove in utter vain that she doesn’t need Gary’s attention anymore. She has a real man now.
But, of course, this is all failed subterfuge. Jack Holden and his old director buddy Rex Blau (Tom Waits) are somehow more immature than a teenager, and neither can give Alana what she wants because they’re too obsessed with one another and themselves. Gary’s attention is prized to Alana above all else, to the point where she doesn’t want someone his own age to have it. In her mind, it would be wasted on someone his own age. Gary’s attention is akin to Alana’s elixir of life, keeping her closer in proximity to youthfulness while also rendering her an ageless object of desire.
What could be better than being a teenager’s fixation? You are perfect and flawless and idolized—you are a version of you that does not exist, yet does to them. Through time, the blemishes of the real world start to shift into focus. The all-encompassing intensity of romantic and sexual attraction, the kind that hurts and overwhelms and makes gods out of mortals, starts to fade. But in Gary Valentine’s mind, while he’s still 15, Alana is Grace Kelly.
It’s Gary’s perspective that teeters the film into the realm of unreality. Gary’s sheer aplomb and charmed ability to, in the simplest terms, make shit happen seems utterly fantastical. At times, it’s as if the Gary Valentine we know is merely a projection, a figment of Gary’s imagination or the most sought after version of himself. It goes back to the reflection of Gary in the mirror, the one that couples Alana’s face at the start of the film. The reflection that both is and isn’t Gary at once, and that manages to win the unseemly attraction from the older girl he’s pining after. There are also moments in the shaggy story, scenes that hang in this uncanny lull that feel like glitches in the matrix. Gary’s mistaken identity arrest at the teenage fair, or his and Alana’s confrontation with his agent, Mary Grady (Harriet Sansom Harris)—a tensely comedic sequence that borders on the speculative. Or the bizarre time spent between Gary, Alana and the manic, fictionalized alter-ego of Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), which culminates in Alana impeccably navigating a gasless moving truck backwards down a hill.
In this strange, unbecoming, ill-advised way, Gary and Alana are perfect for each other. Gary, a boy who perpetually lives in his head, whose dreams are bigger than he is, is entangled with a young woman who is still immature, and insecure, and directionless enough to crave the way he sees her and the rest of the world: Lacking the experience and nuance that, over time, reveals the rough edges of love and life. Through Gary Valentine’s mind, Alana Kane is preserved in glossy amber, and the world really does revolve around Gary Valentine and his hare-brained, money-making schemes. It’s true, as Paul Thomas Anderson himself has pointed out, that no physical line is crossed between the two mismatched people. But it is not monstrous to find oneself bewitched by the promise of being desired in a way that transcends reality. These desires between the characters coalesce into a film dappled in shades of magical realism. Anderson is no stranger to the concept, having demonstrated finesse in nurturing stories that blur the line between reality and dreams, in the wish fulfillment fantasy of Punch-Drunk Love, or in the frog downpour of Magnolia, or in Amy Adams’ changing iris hues in The Master.
This idea of teenage love inventing fantastical happily-ever-afters is no more potent than in the final scene of the film, when the camera lens refracts a brilliant streak of flashing, kaleidoscopic light from a pinball machine, intercutting between Gary and Alana as they “Hi” to one another after pulling away from a romantic embrace. It’s an otherworldly moment which recalls Punch-Drunk Love, that transitions the frame from the kiss into the concluding, idealistic shot of Gary and Alana bounding away from Gary’s pinball palace, hand-in-hand, with Alana admitting that she loves him. But did she really? Did he even kiss her? It all just seems too good to be true, and maybe it is. Barry Egan’s wish fulfillment has now become Gary Valentine’s. It has also become Alana Kane’s.
Indeed, the world of Licorice Pizza is atypical for much of Anderson’s work post-Punch-Drunk Love, in the auspicious, fairytale warmth he offers his characters in the end, regardless of whether it’s real, regardless of moral ambiguity. Licorice Pizza is, in part, about chasing some form of a dream. Whether it’s Gary searching for a place of belonging in the adult world with his hustling schemes and his grandiose visions of personal success, or in the soulmate he believes to be Alana. Or Alana longing for a sense of stability and purpose and a love that is made of pure fantasy; a love that can only come about as youth slips away, as it’s already done for her. Or Anderson chasing the nostalgic memories of his youth spent in sun-kissed California, preoccupied with a woman much older than him—a woman who happened to be his elementary school art teacher, who happened to be Alana Haim’s mom.
Gary doesn’t take his head out of the clouds, and Alana doesn’t meet some sort of retribution for whatever it is that she feels for Gary. Instead, Gary and Alana find each other. Two imperfect people, their poles opposed and magnetized, their futures ever uncertain, buoyed by one another and what they stand for, what they could be and, most importantly, what they aren’t. Gary and Alana are one another’s dream. Who are we to tell them it’s not real?
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.