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Licorice Pizza Review: California Dreamin'

There's an earnestness to the way Paul Thomas Anderson makes films, a sense that no matter the subgenre he's working in, no matter how cynical his characters might be, he can't help but be sincerely enraptured by the subject of his latest project. It's something that feels baked into the celluloid itself, something that comes across in everything from the moments of sparking creativity among the characters of "Boogie Nights" to the outbursts of violent conviction in "There Will Be Blood." No matter the tone, or the visual, or even the outright darkness of some of his characters and sequences, there's always a feeling that the man behind the curtain is truly, sincerely in love with his chosen art form.

That feeling, that love of the act of making movies and then showing them to us, comes across more clearly in "Licorice Pizza" than it has in perhaps any other Anderson film, no matter how great a triumph each previous effort was. Perhaps it's because this film is about growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s, something Anderson and his friends went through. Perhaps it's because the young man at the heart of the story is equally determined and laid back, an almost oxymoronic dichotomy that seems to capture something of Anderson's own style of character creation and tonal balance. Perhaps it's because, when laid alongside more tension-laden efforts like "There Will Be Blood" and "The Master," this film feels like Anderson at his most relaxed. Whatever the case, there's an undeniable warmth exuding from every frame of "Licorice Pizza," and when that warmth merges with a wonderful cast, beautiful photography, and a killer soundtrack, the film becomes one of the most captivating of the year.

Two people, one weird trip

On a school picture day, 15-year-old child actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, in his movie debut) spots Alana Kane (Alana Haim, in her movie debut) as she walks through the crowd of students, offering them a mirror and then shepherding them into the gymnasium to get their picture taken. She's older than he is, no longer in high school, but Gary's immediate sense of confidence and charm captivates Alana enough that she agrees to go to dinner with him. It's the beginning of a connection that will take them on a journey that at once feels like a childhood adventure and a coming-of-age story, as they do everything from start a waterbed business to meet a notorious Hollywood producer (Bradley Cooper) to navigate the fuel crisis of the 1970s and beyond. Through it all, it's clear that Gary wants Alana, but what does Alana want, how long will Gary hold out, and what will they each take away from their strange chemistry?

Though it begins as a seemingly simple case of "Boy Meets Girl, Boy Pursues Girl, Girl is Either Intrigued or Bored Enough to Follow Him," there's more emotional complexity to "Licorice Pizza" than its setup might suggest. Anderson's undeniable knack for realistic — sometimes circuitous, sometimes poetic, always organic — dialogue persists throughout, whether he's tracking the heights of Gary and Alana's shenanigans as friends or the lows of their sometimes reluctant bond. Hoffman and Haim, both newcomers to the realm of filmmaking, take those words and make them soar, giving two of the most natural, earnest, and captivating performances you're likely to see this year, announcing themselves as a pair of extraordinary talents along the way. 

The realism extends beyond the words, though, and into the realm of pacing, where Anderson deploys the gifts he brought to bear on films like "Magnolia" and "Boogie Nights" to create a comfortable, always engaging, easily flowing sort of hangout movie. Like the lives of its characters, "Licorice Pizza" never seems to movie in a straight line. It zips in and out of moments of frenzied activity and adventure, sometimes lingering on a single interaction for much longer than you expect, sometimes floating through moments with limber, elegant economy. It feels like someone telling you the story of one wild summer they had when they were in high school in a well-practiced, easy, charming way, and once you've seen it, it becomes the kind of film you could imagine playing in the background on lazy Saturdays at home forever and ever. 

Valley Girl (and Boy)

Though the natural flow of dialogue and adventures around the San Fernando Valley is a big part of "Licorice Pizza," it's not the only thing that makes it special, because Anderson is not content to sit in the realism of any given moment. Over the course of the film, whether through Gary's brushes with stardom or Alana's own ambitions beyond her menial job, the pair's adventures take them through a strange blend of old and new Hollywood, bringing scene-stealing performances from Bradley Cooper, Tom Waits, and Sean Penn along for the ride. There's a surrealism to these moments, a sense that Gary and Alana are interacting not just with avatars of their given eras of Hollywood, but with larger-than-life chaos spirits who've emerged to inject an extra layer of unpredictability into their already mercurial relationship. There are moments in the film, backed up by some extraordinary lighting, framing, and editing choices, where you really feel like you don't know what could possibly come next. It's invigorating, especially in the context of a film that often feels as laid back as a cruise through the Valley on a Saturday night.

But even that's not the apex of the expressiveness of this movie, of the earnest emotional landscape Anderson is painting for his audience. In the beginning, beyond simple adolescent attraction, it's hard to see what could possibly unite Gary and Alana, and over the course of the film the two of them seem to ponder that mystery more and more for themselves, for both good and ill. But then the pondering grows beyond attraction and into the realm of purpose. These two souls seem linked by fate in ways that defy romance or lust or even puppy love, and it frustrates and baffles each of them in turn as their adventures pull them apart and push them back together. It's a story not of two people, but of two searchers, each looking for the thing that will fulfill them and somehow always circling back into each others' spheres. That sense of constant searching, mingled with adolescent self-mythologizing, twentysomething yearning, and Anderson's own mature sense of perspective, makes "Licorice Pizza" something special. It's a film that works its way down into your soul and stirs up things you forgot you had buried down there — and that means, like so many of Anderson's works, it's a story we won't soon forget.