Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s films aren’t where you’re going to find a wealth of sweet stories of young love. Instead, that’s where you’re more apt to run into raining frogs and an over-the-top Tom Cruise (“Magnolia”), a fearsome Daniel Day-Lewis drinking your milkshake (“There Will Be Blood”) or an unhinged Adam Sandler (“Punch-Drunk Love”).
Expectations are meant to be upended, however, and Anderson does so wonderfully with “Licorice Pizza” (★★★½ out of four; rated R; in theaters Friday in New York and LA, nationwide Dec. 25), his sun-drenched and splendid 1970s coming-of-age film – and arguably most mainstream project to date. The movie introduces two fabulous lead actors, Alana Haim (of the sister pop trio Haim) and Cooper Hoffman (son of late Hollywood legend Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose characters navigate awkward romance, colorful weirdos and various misadventures in California’s San Fernando Valley in an entertaining movie that, like “American Graffiti” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” before it, captures youth in hilarious and poignant ways. In Encino circa 1973, Gary Valentine (Hoffman) is a pimply faced 15-year-old waiting in line for his school picture when he hits on 25-year-old photographer’s assistant Alana Kane (Haim). They banter playfully, he’s enamored by her beauty and spirit, and despite their age difference, she’s entranced by this uncannily confident kid who also happens to be an up-and-coming child actor. “I met the girl I’m gonna marry,” Gary tells his little brother.
When his mom (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) can’t take Gary to New York for a PR blitz, he enlists Alana as his chaperone, the first of many episodes that bond the two but also test their nascent, evolving relationship. Alana becomes Gary’s partner when he starts a waterbed business with his teenage pals, though jealousy rears its head on both sides. They also have to deal with differing maturity levels: After one humorous incident involving an out-of-control moving truck, Alana especially wrestles with teenage shenanigans vs. adult responsibility.