Honorable Mention: Licorice Pizza is, like almost every other Paul Thomas Anderson movie, about America. More specifically it is about America as embodied in the Los Angeles area of California in the 1970s, just as Inherent Vice and Boogie Nights were before it. There Will Be Blood is the prequel: It’s about California in the early twentieth century. Magnolia moved the timeline into the ’90s, albeit one haunted by the 1970s. Hard Eight is set in Las Vegas, but that’s a first film so we’ll cut him some slack. Licorice Pizza is also an oddball romance, like Punch-Drunk Love and Phantom Thread, neither of which are particularly about America, though the former more than the latter. It’s about a girl and a boy and the world they live in and how they somehow, against all common sense, find something like love in it, at least for now.
And it’s also about that boy (Cooper Hoffman) and girl (Alana Haim) growing up, about how they’re always moving through their world — often laterally, tracked by long camera movements. Sometimes they walk, more often they run. It’s a picaresque set almost entirely in the Valley, and it feels like it could have run on forever, just vibing with all the weirdness of America in the ’70s. But the film is far from a nostalgia trip: like its cousin Dazed and Confused, Licorice Pizza is as much about what was, and is, wrong with America as it is about classic rock and questionable fashion. The kids meet a vast array of white people in their adventures, most of them older, most of them seriously fucked up in a way that no one is allowed to discuss openly. Theirs is a world where all the cultural norms are completely wrong: a world where men are either debauched misogynists or macho burnouts, where condescendingly racist fetishizers of other people and cultures are greeted with, at most, a raised eyebrow, where a good man can only go so far in his political career without hiding who he really is and who he really loves.
A coming of age film set in such a world ultimately becomes a story of integration, and thus a tragedy. Alana’s family is played by her real-life family, her sisters and parents. They’re very Jewish and it’s easy to read Alana’s attraction to Gary as an Old World/New World thing, with Gary as the embodiment of a wide-eyed American innocence and entrepreneurialism. He’s bursting with crazy schemes, always looking to make a quick buck with waterbeds or pinball machines or making campaign commercials, whatever the hot new fad is. Gary is a hustler who believes deeply in everything. But most of all he believes in Alana. Gary is an idealized, uncorrupted American man that doesn’t exploit other cultures, or other people, that hurts only people that deserve it. He’s all the potential of America, but he’s only 15 years old. And though we all know how his story is going to end, Anderson lets us live for a while in that space right before our innocent heroes become corrupted. The movie ends while there’s still hope.