Review: ‘Licorice Pizza’ is Alana Haim’s family affair


Haim energizes Anderson’s otherwise lackadaisical story that drags beneath the San Fernando sun. Photo credit: Paul Thomas Anderson.

Karissa Korman, deputy lifestyle editor

Hollywood newcomer Alana Haim is the saving grace of acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson’s much-anticipated “Licorice Pizza,” which premiered in theatres Dec. 25. As Hollywood braces itself for the Academy Awards in March, Haim will be the talent that takes “Licorice Pizza” to a victory. 

To forgiving audiences, “Licorice Pizza” is a charming coming-of-age story set in the heart of  1970s San Fernando Valley, where 25-year-old Alana Kane, played by Haim, and self-proclaimed filmmaker and entrepreneur Gary Valentine, played by Cooper Hoffman, grapple with the uncertainties of growing up. To critical viewers, “Licorice Pizza” is a nightmare that romanticizes a too-close-for-comfort relationship between Kane, an adult woman, and Valentine, a teenage boy, aided and abetted by a slew of grotesque anti-Asian punchlines.

Debates about moral righteousness aside, “Licorice Pizza” is ultimately a fine but forgettable film, a classic self-congratulatory Hollywood flick about the heroics of teenage film buffs and the geographic supremacy of southern California.

Yet through all of the fanfare and frustration around Anderson’s divisive film, one thing is certain: Haim is a natural, enigmatic and unexpected movie star. 

Haim energizes Anderson’s otherwise lackadaisical story that drags beneath the San Fernando sun. She is frantic when Anderson’s story feels too patient. She runs — literally, there is a lot of running in this film — to the finish line when it seems as if the rest of “Licorice Pizza” has forgotten exactly where it’s headed. 

Anderson’s longtime collaborator actor John C. Reilly was one of the first outsiders to get a look into “Licorice Pizza.” In an interview with Haim, Reilly told the debuting actress that he couldn’t take his eyes off of her as she and Hoffman trampled through the Valley. 

Audiences seem to agree. In the race through the film industry’s awards circuit, Haim is a frontrunner in the pack of best actress contenders. But Haim, already an awarded musician for her role in her sisters’ rock band HAIM, never expected this outpour of praise from Hollywood’s highest guilds for her breakout role. 

“I had no clue,” Haim said in a virtual roundtable with college publications Jan. 24. “And the fact that now everyone can see the movie — even talking about it — is a new experience for me.”

Although this is the actress’s first run across the silver screen and through the film awards circuit, Haim came to “Licorice Pizza” already well-acquainted with Anderson, who has directed several of her band’s music videos. Anderson hand-picked Haim, a San Fernando Valley native, to lead “Licorice Pizza.” Production became a full-fledged family affair when Haim’s parents and sisters joined the film to play the Kane family.

“We were all kind of looking at each other being like, how did we get here? What is going on?” Haim said. “We’re all in these ‘70s clothing and makeup — my mom had this crazy hairstyle. She kept on being like, ‘I look like my mother.’”

Transformed into the 1970s versions of themselves, Haim, her parents and her sisters quip and quarrel on screen as if they had resumed conversations from between takes. As the Kane family, the Haim clan levels Anderson’s otherwise lofty Hollywood soapbox with a tangible — if eccentric — orchestration of family life. “Licorice Pizza” puts the Kanes to the test when they go toe to toe with Kane’s new boyfriend, an overconfident actor played by Skyler Gisondo, who comes to the Kane household for Shabbat dinner.

“We could hardly get through one take,” Haim said. “Honestly, shoutout to Skyler Gisondo for jumping into my family dynamic. I gave him a pep talk before we started, and I was like, ‘You’re about to meet my family. I’ve only known you for 24 hours. My family is crazy. I hope you’re okay.’ And he jumped right in. My dad is now super obsessed with him — he thinks that I should actually marry him, but no.”

This ever-present, overwhelming family fray was second-nature to Haim, who started a band with her parents and two older sisters at 4 years old, long before her current passion project, HAIM, took off when she was 16. But when production moved into the Valley and beyond the walls of the Kane household, Haim found herself without her usual collaborators for the majority of “Licorice Pizza.”

“I was alone for the first time in my life, which was super crazy. I really do think, for the first time, I feel older because I had to do this all by myself,” she said.

Therein lies the only incontestable, unproblematic coming-of-age story of “Licorice Pizza.” The film gave Haim the keys to an independence that was new to the musician-turned-actress who had previously spent her lifetime surrounded by the artistic buzz of her family. “Licorice Pizza” landed Haim back in the Valley where she grew up, and it was on her old stomping grounds that she was able to come into her own at the helm of one of Hollywood’s biggest movies.

Whereas Kane’s growing pains send her into a fit of uncertainty and misadventure in the Valley, Haim has jumped into the deep end of the movie business, and she is content to go where the current takes her. For now, Haim is gearing up to reunite with her sisters in their upcoming tour, “One More Haim,” but the new double-threat star still has her eyes on Hollywood. 

“I hope I can act again, that would be really sick,” she said. “But if I don’t, if this is it, this was the best experience I could ever dream of.”