Welcome to the Valley; PTA's been waiting for you.

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Youth might be wasted on the young, but it is not lost on filmmakers. And something about this year in particular seems to have spurred a mini-boom in coming-of-age biography — various auteurs getting back to their roots via 1960s Ireland (Kenneth Branagh's Belfast), '80s Italy (Paolo Sorrentino's The Hand of God) and '90s London (Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir: Part II).

On the face of it, Paul Thomas Anderson seems like a less likely candidate for that kind of personal nostalgia; whatever his many qualities as a director, sentiment has rarely been one of them. But his Licorice Pizza (in theaters Friday) might be the best of the lot: a sunny, skewering Nixon-era dream of latchkey kids on the loose in the San Fernando Valley starring Cooper Hoffman (the son of late PTA regular Phillip Seymour) as Gary Valentine, a teen actor with a strawberry bowl cut, a showman's instincts, and only the scantiest whiff of adult supervision from his distracted single mother (Mary Elizabeth Ellis).

Gary goes to school, nominally, though he mostly seems to show up for state requirements and social opportunities — like class picture day, where an older woman in a little white kick skirt catches his eye. Alana Kane (musician Alana Haim, in her big-screen debut) couldn't be less interested; he's 15, she's 25. Still, he has his charms, or at least a dogged persistence, and the opportunity to act as his chaperone on a trip to New York for a TV appearance sounds a lot better than wrangling teenagers in a school gymnasium while a middle-aged photographer grabs her ass. Soon the pair have formed a bond that falls somewhere between partners in crime and surrogate parenting, though the undauntable Gary is not the kind of kid who ever seems to doubt he can eventually turn a no into a yes.

He's a born hustler — he'll sell you on waterbeds or pinball, depending on the day — but a sweetheart too, and misadventure seems to follow him wherever he goes: There are blowouts on talk shows and at trade shows (those waterbeds!), cases of mistaken identity and several possible misdemeanors. But the story belongs equally to Alana, whose failure to launch (she still lives at home with her family, all played by actual Haims) and find an age-appropriate man has kept her trapped in the Valley too long, she fears, to ever make it out alive. So she tries on romance with Gary's preening young costar (Skyler Gisondo), a much-older actor (Sean Penn) with an Evel Knievel streak, and even a local aspiring councilman (Benny Safdie). Still, it's Gary who always seems to be there at the end of the night.

Licorice Pizza
Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in 'Licorice Pizza'
| Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/MGM

Licorice may not strictly be Anderson's own history — at 51, he's at least a decade younger than Gary — but it's a PTA movie in every way that counts, stacked with the surreal narrative cul de sacs and offbeat characters that have become his signature. In spirit it probably lands a lot closer to the looseness of Boogie Nights or Inherent Vice than the formal command of Phantom Thread and There Will Be Blood; there's a sweet shagginess to the script that feels almost breezy, which is not an adjective his I-drink-your-milkshake oeuvre often earns.

That manifests most in the sunny, unhurried way the movie unfolds, little episodic incidents dotted with standalone riffs and loopy cameos (John C. Reilly, Maya Rudolph, Tom Waits). Some, like Bradley Cooper's fantastically unhinged Jon Peters, a vision in white deliriously kung fu-kicking his way down the street, feel truly inspired; others, like John Michael Higgins as a casually racist restaurateur, fail to find the punchline. (His Japanese wives are all interchangeable; get it?)

The idea of a statutory romance between Hoffman's Gary, too — who is 18 in real life — and Alana, 29, is undeniably more discomfiting through a 2021 lens, as an already-inflamed internet debate can testify. But it also seems strangely retroactive to overlay the mores of today on a film so fully immersed in its vanished world, from the deep-cuts soundtrack (Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood composed the score) to the legendary Valley spots meticulously recreated here in mid-century kitsch and Naugahyde. Licorice (the title, never once mentioned or explained, remains a happy non sequitur) is a love letter to an era, and more than that a feeling: a tender, funny ramble forged in all the hope and absurdity of adolescence, one wild poly-blend rumpus at a time. Grade: A–

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