‘Licorice Pizza’ Is a Jewish Coming-of-Age Story

In Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film, Alana Haim follows in the footsteps of Barbra Streisand and Fran Drescher.

Light spoilers ahead for “Licorice Pizza.”

As a fan of the band Haim, I knew I needed to watch Alana Haim shine in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film “Licorice Pizza.” Of course, I already knew Alana and her family were Jewish. But walking out of an almost sold out screening in New York City, I was still surprised by how much the story resonated with me as a Jewish narrative that provides representation for Ashkenazi women in the United States.

Set in the early 1970s in the San Fernando Valley, “Licorice Pizza” tells the story of the relationship between Alana Kane (Alana Haim), a 25-year-old photographer’s assistant, and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a 15-year-old high schooler, actor and hustler. They soon go into business together: Alana works with Gary to sell waterbeds, and in return, Gary helps her break into acting and the film industry. But Gary has always had other plans for their relationship. The entire movie was shot on 35-millimeter film, which gives the cinematography a very vintage vibe (is it cringe to call the 70’s “vintage”? Oh well, here we are) and the soundtrack is no exception, featuring Bowie, Sonny and Cher, the Doors and Paul McCartney and Wings, among others.

This film has inspired a lot of TikTok discourse, and I think much of the criticism is valid. I will mention how the film employs racist moments and plays them for laughs, which seemed unnecessary — “Licorice Pizza” already has enough strong comedy without having a white male character repeatedly mimic a Japanese woman. It’s gratuitous at best. Also, the 10-year age gap between Alana and Gary is, to put it simply, gross. I had difficulty rooting for the two characters to be together because it was inappropriate and, quite frankly, illegal. Sure, it was the ‘70s (see: “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”), but this film does not do enough to criticize the pairing, which has led a lot of viewers to believe that the film is romanticizing predatory relationships. The film does, however, use their friendship to showcase the characters as lost souls trying to figure out who they are and who they should be — particularly Alana.

Through Alana’s character, who is based on her and shares her name and her family, I found a lot to love in the movie. Paul Thomas Anderson does know the Jewish Haim family and is married to the wonderfully Jewish and wickedly talented comedian and actress Maya Rudolph, who is also in “Licorice Pizza” — so he has many ties both to Judaism and to Alana specifically. As a dynamic character who happens to be Jewish, Alana embodied a lot of qualities I recognize in myself — the qualities of a young, modern Jewish woman. I want to argue that “Licorice Pizza” is, in fact, a Jewish coming-of-age story.

It is rare to find representations of young Jewish women onscreen whose Judaism is not only acknowledged, but also essentially characterizes who they are. We recently had “Shiva Baby”; further back, there’s Barbra Streisand’s portrayal of Fannie Bryce, Fran Drescher on “The Nanny”… and that might be it, unless you count cartoon portrayals. Sure, we have Cher Horowitz of “Clueless” and Gretchen Wieners of “Mean Girls” as pop culture examples of Jewish women — but their Jewishness feels less deep, and they are characterized as the stereotype of a “Jewish American Princess.” Alana in “Licorice Pizza” creates a character who breaks down stereotypes and prides herself on her Jewishness, as it sets her apart.

Alana’s Jewishness runs through every part of her life. In the film, she lives in a small house in the suburbs with her overbearing family, made up of her two sisters, her quiet mother, and her Israeli father. Her Israeli identity is important to her acting career — and to the story itself, as a later plot point focuses on a gas crisis in the Middle East: Alana pays attention to it, while Gary is oblivious.

One scene that especially showcases Alana’s Jewishness comes when Gary introduces her to his agent, Mary Grady. When Mary first takes a look at Alana, she tells her that “Jewish noses are very in right now,” alluding to Barbra Streisand’s cultural dominance in the film’s world. This seems to break down the stereotype that “the Jews run Hollywood”: It appears that Alana is different, a welcome change (thanks, Barbra), but still a departure from regular beauty standards on film. Grady then asks about Alana’s “special skills,” and she replies that she speaks Hebrew and knows Krav Maga thanks to her father’s service in the IDF. Though the exchange is played for comic relief, it also represents Alana’s otherness as a Jewish woman.

Despite this othering, Alana continues to make it known that she is a loud and proud Jewish woman. In a scene with famous actor Jack Holden (based on William Holden and played by Sean Penn), she tries to get his attention by bringing up the fact that she is Jewish and laughing about it. We see that, in some ways, she is still navigating accepting this part of herself. She struggles with the invasiveness and the nosiness of her family (we Jews do always want to know what is going on) as she tries to date; in a hilarious Shabbat dinner scene, Alana’s date, Lance (Skyler Gisondo), explains that he doesn’t believe in God and therefore is not Jewish. When Alana confronts him about the status of his nether regions, screaming at him about whether he is circumcised (he is, to which she shouts, “then you’re a fucking Jew!”), she blames both him for his ambivalence towards his Judaism and her family for their questioning of his identity for the relationship’s failure.

Alana struggles to take responsibility for her actions, trying to always remain guarded (when Danielle tells her to stop fighting with everyone, she tells her to shut up). She is the definition of the loud Jewish woman, a characteristic she shares with Barbra Streisand — and which appears to attract Barbra’s boyfriend, Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), who hits on Alana in front of Gary when they deliver a waterbed to his house.

Alana’s difficulty in trying to understand her Jewish identity and who she is as an adult lead her to politics as an intern for Jewish politician Joel Wachs. This is where she shines, calling voters, organizing the office and fighting for a cause. She starts to move away from Gary as she comes into her own, but deep down, she is still unsure about what she wants. When she learns more about Joel and his complexities as a Jewish man, Alana becomes aware of her own complexities as a Jewish woman and is inspired to chase after her own desires (if you know where this is going, ew).

Of course, this is just one portrayal of Judaism, a white Ashkenazi one that emphasizes Alana’s white privilege. Still, Alana’s Jewishness is part of what makes her unique and makes Gary see her as “the woman I’m going to marry one day” whom he’ll “never forget.” Paul Thomas Anderson has done Ashkenazi Jewish women justice to tell a story that centers their identity on a fundamental level. Maybe he was thinking of his own Jewish wife, Maya Rudolph; maybe she, too, was unforgettable to him because she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and own her identity.

In the end, Alana’s Jewishness guides every step of her journey. She discovers what she wants and goes after it. Her arc made me reflect on my own path as a Jewish woman in the 21st century. At 21, I, too, am an Ashkenazi woman who is still trying to figure out the balance between being too much and being just enough, navigating what my own desires are. “Licorice Pizza” made me feel proud to follow in the footsteps of the great onscreen Jewish women who came before: Barbra, Fran, Danielle from “Shiva Baby”… and now Alana.

Mara Kleinberg

Mara Kleinberg (she/her) is a film student at Mount Holyoke College and a self-described Jewish American Princess (seriously, she’s done it all; Jewish camp counselor, choir, and youth group) hailing from Brooklyn, New York. When she’s not delivering hot takes and analysis on Jake Gyllenhaal movies and all things pop culture on Twitter, you can find her interviewing artists on her radio show Manischewitz with Mara on 91.5 FM South Hadley WMHC. Mara is a 2021-2022 Alma College Writing Fellow.

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