An otherwise endearing story misses the mark at depicting complex women
In director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, an ambitious teenage boy meets a young woman who is still figuring her life out. The teenager, Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) tries to ask Alana Kane (Alana Haim) out, but she rejects him for good reason: she claims to be 25, a good 10 years Gary’s senior, but she’s known to lie. What follows, however, is a rocky but heartfelt friendship as the two come of age in 1970s Los Angeles. There is no strong plot to speak of. The central conflict comes from the highs and lows of Gary and Alana’s friendship, one that is riddled with jealousy despite the agreement that their relationship is platonic and professional.
Gary and Alana’s banter and the clash of their personalities propel the story forward. As they get to know each other and learn more about themselves in the process, the audience is on the journey with them, and comedic scenes keep viewers engaged. But at the end of the day, Licorice Pizza exists for the audience to spend time with the characters without the rules of a classic film narrative. Changes come and go, as they do in life, and so the crux of the film becomes determining the true nature of Gary and Alana’s feelings for one another. However, in my watching of the film, I ultimately became most concerned with determining the nature of its relationship with women. In several scenes, Alana loses her agency and autonomy to the whims of men, both willingly and unwillingly.
In one scene, Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) leans over her as she drives a truck, attempting to “help” her pass a car on a narrow lane, getting uncomfortably close to her face. In another, Gary is tempted to touch Alana while she sleeps, but he doesn’t give in. Other times, Alana willingly sexualizes or exposes herself for the attention or validation of her male peers. There is an odd trend of Alana seeking the validation of the boys and men around her. This isn’t to say that no female character can ever have this trait, especially considering it happens frequently in reality, but the difference in how she and Gary are represented leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Gary’s inner life is rich. He’s goal-oriented, confident, and always on the lookout for a new business venture. He feels strongly about Alana and enjoys her company, but he doesn’t rely on her validation and attention the way she relies on his. There are moments when he is jealous of the attention she receives from other men, but he never has to be as physically vulnerable as she does.
Alana can be endearing because of her relatability as a young woman who is unsure of her future, spending her time with friends to pass the days. Gary can be endearing because of his strong ambition and his dedication for her. But the way Alana is written as needing male validation with no arc that allows her to seek validation inwards makes her character feel incomplete. In other words, Alana feels like a victim of the male gaze, in that she only exists to do something for the men on screen, behind the camera, and in the audience, rather than existing as a complex character in her own right.
Ultimately, my feelings towards the film are mixed. Women can be insecure and flawed, and deserve to be represented as much as confident, strong women are. Alana is all these things, but her womanhood is tied so much to the men around her, it makes it hard to fully enjoy the film as a slice-of-life, character piece. That said, each character had a distinct essence to them, with their individualized quirks and personalities. The film deals with themes of growth, unrequited feelings, and friendship, all of which make for a lovely coming-of-age tale. But ultimately, the male gaze (as well as some racist jokes), get in the way.