Op-Ed: Is the Age Gap in ‘Licorice Pizza’ Okay?
With every awards season comes a plethora of films that can make a large impact on the audiences that see it, and we always hope it’ll be a positive one. There’s nothing better than going to a theater, or sitting down on your couch, and discovering a new movie that you find yourself falling in love with. Whether it’s because you connect with the characters, the story, or the overall themes of the movie, some can really make a deep emotional impact. However, there’s the rare occasion of finding a film that creates that same deep emotional impact in the wrong way, and for me, Licorice Pizza was that film of this year.
Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza was a highly anticipated film of 2021, but some controversy started swirling when it was revealed the plot centered on the mid-20’s character Alana Kane, and the 15-year-old Gary Valentine “growing up, running around, and going through the treacherous navigation of first love in the San Fernando Valley, 1973” as IMDb describes. There have been questions thrown around across the internet and different publishing platforms over whether the romance storyline between the adult Alana and the teenage Gary is acceptable. After viewing the film, I’m on the side that whether intentionally or not, the romance between the two begins to fall into the predatory and potentially abusive territory.
The National Society for the Prevention of Child Cruelty (NSPCC) defines the term “grooming” as when someone builds a relationship, trust, and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them. (1) Whether the perpetrator is doing so intentionally or not, grooming is a common behavior used by adults to prey on minors (anyone under 18). Often it’s used as a tactic to make the minor feel as if they’re choosing to engage in the sexual and/or romantic behavior with the adult, therefore putting them somewhat at fault. However, it’s important to remember that even if the child chooses to engage in any kind of romantic or sexual acts, it’s the adult’s responsibility to put a stop to it, and know where to draw a boundary.
Licorice Pizza opens with the ambiguously aged Alana (somewhere between 25 and 28) working at a school during picture day. The 15-year-old Gary is infatuated with her, and immediately starts flirting with her. At many instances during the conversation, Alana points out the inappropriate age difference between them, while neither rejecting or accepting Gary’s advances. She acknowledges that there’s a power dynamic between the two, and as the adult, she holds the control over him, the minor who is blatantly expressing interest in her. Later in the film, she even admits to knowing about this dynamic, and still chooses to participate in it. “Do you think it’s weird I hang out with Gary and his 15-year-old friends?” she asks her sister in a clip that’s used in the trailer. “I think it’s weird that I hang out with Gary and his 15-year-old friends,” she eventually finishes. She’s aware of the dynamic, and yet, she still chooses to exploit it.
Alana further exploits this power dynamic when Gary asks her to be his guardian on a work trip (he’s a child actor) to New York. While there, she meets another child actor, Lance, and begins a relationship with him, again, despite their inappropriate age difference. Initially, she responds to Lance’s advancements as a way to make Gary jealous, establishing further control and power over him. After starting the film with this relationship, and continuing to see the relationship between Alana and Gary develop, it’s clear that Alana is a repeat offender, intentionally dating boys significantly younger than her in order to form some control over them. We’ve seen this many times in recent years with celebrities such as James Charles and his victims, or Drake and Millie Bobby Brown. While it’s universally accepted that these relationships between older men and their victims are unacceptable, it’s been viewed much differently in this film with the relationship between an older woman and a younger boy. It begs the question, why is it unacceptable when it’s in reality with older men, but it’s praised in fiction with an older woman? Shouldn’t they be viewed as the same? What if the genders were reversed in the film, would it be viewed differently?
Throughout the film, Alana consistently engages in behaviors that are possessive over Gary, and intentionally manipulative and controlling, along with showing extreme jealousy when she perceives that Gary is perhaps taking some of the control in the relationship away from her. Many critics have lauded this form of storytelling as two individuals who are both flawed and ultimately find love with each other. While I love this idea of storytelling and I think it can have a powerful narrative, it’s important to remember that the very definition of the relationship between the two can inherently not be a “give and take”. One is an adult, and one is a minor. It is an adult’s responsibility to establish and maintain a firm boundary. While Alana is an equally flawed individual as Gary is, she’s still an adult, and her behavior is not only unacceptable but abusive towards the developing and significantly younger Gary.
Does this mean that any relationship with a significant age difference is automatically abusive and controlling? Of course not. It’s important to remember where people are at in their lives when they meet each other and begin to pursue each other romantically. The film tries to set these two up as equal, both are finding their own path and unsure of themselves. However, a teenage boy should not be expected to be nearly as emotionally mature as a mid 20’s woman. The idea that Alana is as emotionally immature as Gary does not make it ok for her to engage in a romantic relationship with him.
All of this isn’t to say I don’t believe films shouldn’t have flawed characters. One of the most interesting traits about the character Alana is why she’s so emotionally immature, and what causes her to behave the way she does. Films would be incredibly boring if every single film was filled with characters that were perfect in every way and had nothing wrong with them. The issue here lies with the way this film is framed. I’ve listed several examples already about the power dynamics and controlling behaviors between the two main characters of this movie. If these characters were both adults, it would be seen as a controlling and abusive relationship, with an interesting narrative about how hurt people hurt people, or how you can find healing through the flaws of one another. A film that does this beautifully is 2013’s Silver Linings Playbook. The two fully adult characters manipulate and lash out at one another constantly, but eventually, find love and healing through each other at the end. It doesn’t exactly condone this type of relationship, but it explains how it can happen, why these relationships occur, and still find ways to be romantic. The addition of the adult and minor characters in Licorice Pizza instantly takes this dynamic away, but still tries to frame it in a positive and romantic light, as if it’s a cute rom-com about two people finding love with each other. While it’s great on paper, it fails to recognize that the age difference is still inherently controlling and abusive, and in a sense, condones and romanticizes the pedophilic relationship.
What’s most important is this is not a pure romance between the two, this is a relationship that is sexualized. At different points during the film, Alana parades around for Gary at a work event after he asks her to wear a swimsuit, and at that same event, she also is jealous that Gary, a 15-year-old boy, is making out with another girl his own age. Later Alana, a grown woman, voluntarily decides to expose her breasts to a minor, in a moment that’s supported to be portrayed as comedic after he asks her if he can touch them (also seen in the trailer). Dealing with sexism in Hollywood is also about desexualizing and destigmatizing a woman’s body, we also can’t ignore that this act in the film was supposed to be viewed as intimate and building sexual tension between the two characters.
The film has also been defended with the difference between terms of “pedophilia” and “ephebophilia”. While the terms “pedophilia” (an adult or older individual committing sexual acts with a prepubescent victim) versus “ephebophilia” (an adult or older individual committing sexual acts with a victim who is in their mid-to-late adolescents, generally ages 15 to 19) can be debated, ultimately it doesn’t matter. By the general public, “pedophilia” is often used to refer to any adult who is preying on a minor under the age of 18, with the intention to abuse and exploit them. The debate between the usage of the two terms is semantics to try to distract from the main problem at hand, that an adult is harming a child with the intention of exploiting them.
We also need to draw the comparisons between this film and the powerful and influential 2017 Me Too movement. Words from survivors of abuse and sexual assault at the hands of powerful men in the industry took the news by storm, with large repercussions, such as the infamous Harvey Weinstein scandal. In 2018, the Haim sisters even spoke up about the sexism that they have experienced in the industry from their own agent. (2) It seems we’ve made huge progress, and many survivors have taken back their narrative and self-worth. Where is that same attitude with this movie? It’s already weird that the characters are friends in the film, and it’s even more inappropriate to layer it with a romantic relationship. I fail to see many critics recognizing how inappropriate it is that the film ends with a 25-28-year-old woman kissing a 15-year-old boy and confessing her love for him, and the film frames this in a romantic positive light as if they “finally” get together.
The Me Too movement focuses on assault of all kinds, but this film and its critics seem to just blissfully ignore it, It further exploits the gender dynamics that the film is framed in a way where the audience is supposed to “root” for the 15-year-old boy, as if he “scored” by dating an older woman.
I do not believe Paul Thomas Anderson is a bad person. In fact, he’s been praised as one of the best directors to work for in Hollywood (3). In an incredibly sexist industry already, it’s refreshing to have a male director treat his talent with the respect they deserve, and he sets the standard for how all directors should behave on sets. I also do not believe the main actors in this film, Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman, are bad people either. I can see the story they believed they were telling and what compelled them to want to work on it. However, I do believe it’s our responsibility as an audience and as a society to hold those we love accountable when they make mistakes. We need to draw attention to where things went wrong, and why they are unacceptable to begin with. Unfortunately, I feel as if many critics have not done their job in this aspect, and instead are praising Thomas Anderson for the story he’s trying to tell, rather than criticizing him for the harmful product that was created.
If you believe you or someone you know is being groomed or abused, please visit one of the resources listed below:
Women Against Crime: https://womenagainstcrime.com/how-to-identify-grooming-and-what-to-do-if-you-see-it/
Internet Matters: https://www.internetmatters.org/issues/online-grooming/deal-with-it/