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Licorice Pizza

For what might seem a self-centred genre, the best coming-of-age stories have always included a profound social element. After all, discovering who you are requires discovering the adult social world where, for the rest of your life, you’ll have to live. But what happens to you if you grow up in an adult world that is itself infantile, and have to come of age surrounded by overgrown children? And should you still need to come of age when you’re 25 already?

This is the situation in which Alana (Alana Haim) finds herself in Licorice Pizza, the new-but-old-feeling movie by obvious-genius Hollywood auteur Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s a film seeming to crib a lot from his earlier projects: like Inherent Vice it’s set in a woozy, sunny period California; like Boogie Nights it’s more an unfocused hangout than a straight-ahead story; like Phantom Thread it’s about a romance that looks wrong but that seems to work for its participants. And in it Anderson is unquestionably in nostalgic mode, drawing on his own childhood and the stories of his friends, dropping 70s hits with abandon, and shooting on film with old and scratchy lenses.

The result is gorgeous: no one can move a camera or block a scene like PTA. The film is sweet, charming, fun. It gives Encino, California, a kind of sacred glow. But it’s also undeniably strange, even queasy. That wrong-seeming romance is with Gary (Cooper Hoffman), a fifteen-year-old child actor and perennial hustler. He’s forever cooking up schemes, and he pursues Alana — ten years his senior — like another con he’s working on.

In a world filled with adult children, Gary is a child imitating an adult — and imitating an unbearably awful adult, at that. You get the sense that Alana understands and enjoys his hustle only because there’s so little else in her world to enjoy. The real adults around her, when she does try to involve herself with them, are all cartoons, caricatures, or liars.

How is she supposed to grow up here? What if your romantic choices are just between man-children and child-men? The syrupy nostalgia and cute period detail of Licorice Pizza has the prickly feel of a trap.

Of course, part of the dark energy at the film’s heart is from the central relationship between an adult and a child, which while not overtly sexual is undeniably romantic. Hoffman and especially Haim — from the band Haim, and a revelation as an actress — navigate this difficult terrain well, but that does not mean that it stops being uncomfortable. Nor should it. Like Alana, Licorice Pizza is neither cynical nor entirely innocent.

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