When does entertainment cross the line from fun and cheeky to problematic? That’s the question that sprung to mind while watching two of the most lauded comedies this year, “Licorice Pizza” and “Red Rocket.” On one hand, both films feature flawed protagonists striving for their versions of the American dream in ways that are irresistible to audiences. On the other hand, these stories involve romantic relationships with minors.
Amid the escapades of a young entrepreneur and former child actor (Cooper Hoffman) in “Licorice Pizza” and a washed-up porn star’s (Simon Rex) devil-on-a-tightrope act in “Red Rocket,” we see them pursue romances that are questionable, at best. And the critical discussion about this has been lackluster at best.
While no film should be tasked with presenting sanitized reflections of humanity with morally sound characters, viewers should still take it upon themselves to question the images they consume and not strictly leave it up to the film, or its characters, to address those conflicts.
After all, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson waits about an hour into “Licorice Pizza” before he even broaches the question of decency when it comes to the budding romance between 15-year-old Gary (Hoffman) and 25-year-old photographer Alana (Alana Haim). “Do you think it’s weird that I hang out with Gary and his friends all the time?” she asks her sister.
The obvious answer is: Uh, yes. Definitely. And to her credit, Alana at first repeatedly rejects Gary’s incessant flirtations and proposals to be her significant other. But ultimately, she, like much of the audience apparently, can’t refuse his charm and they begin a friendship. As we watch the two engage in shenanigans in the 1970s-era San Fernando Valley — like speeding backward in a moving van in an attempt to dodge Barbra Streisand’s unhinged lover (Bradley Cooper) — it becomes clear that we’re supposed to root for them to be together.
Their relationship has certainly won over a large swath of audiences. This is “the stuff that young love is made of,” writes the Daily Beast. There’s a lot to unpack here with both Alana and Gary being grouped as “young,” even though she admittedly matures a lot in this film, when non-white minors are often treated as adults.
But it is equally hard to ignore not just an age gap but the reality that Alana is an adult and Gary is a child at the beginning of the film, no matter how enjoyable it might be to watch their love blossom over time, which is a strangely nebulous yet important concept in the film. That is further complicated when Gary walks away when Alana refuses to show him her breasts, so she caves in and does so. Because until that point, they could almost get away with being a passionately platonic pair.
Why doesn’t she more vehemently decline this suggestion? That is one of many questions left unanswered in this nostalgia-soaked film that doesn’t think about anything too deeply, least of all race and age. It simply exists on cool vibes and a paper-thin-yet-pleasant plot as we watch its central duo eventually seal the deal with a kiss.
“There’s no line that’s crossed, and there’s nothing but the right intentions,” Anderson told The New York Times in response to his protagonists’ disparate ages. “That’s not the story that we made, in any kind of way. There isn’t a provocative bone in this film’s body.”
But just because the film — and its storyteller — doesn’t take itself too seriously doesn’t mean there’s no space for open dialogue. While it’s good, even necessary, to show disagreeable situations like the one at the core of “Licorice Pizza,” it’s also crucial to be discerning about it. We should ask: Should we really want this love to happen?
The same question could be asked of “Red Rocket,” writer-director Sean Baker’s new film that centers Mikey Saber (Rex), a former adult film actor who heads back to his Texas home where he’s no longer universally adored. Rather, the people around this town pretty much can’t stand his guts — especially his estranged wife (Bree Elrod) and her mother (Brenda Deiss).
Similar to “Licorice Pizza,” we have a central male character who oozes charisma and self-assurance even though he makes foolhardy choices. But it’s thankfully established early in the film that Mikey is not a good person. He’s unreliable and uses people, hence why Lexi (Elrod) wants to evict him even before she agrees to put him up for a bit.
Due to his unsavory track record, he’s also unable to find work and turns to selling drugs to make ends meet and keep his wife and mother-in-law off his back. But there’s a human connection between the audience and Mikey in that he’s a guy that’s down on his luck, scratching for a career comeback. In many ways, he’s another version of the underdog Baker has long been fascinated with as evidenced in his prior films like “Tangerine” and “The Florida Project.”
Maybe that’s a reason few have truly confronted the fact that Mikey also falls for a 17-year-old girl named Strawberry (Suzanna Son), who works at a doughnut store and who he feels listens to him and picks him up when he’s down (and could be the ticket to his next career move). Or maybe him pursuing a relationship with a minor — even one who meets the age of consent in Texas — just folds into the laundry list of his flagrant activities and needs no extra notation.
But it’s worth calling out Mikey’s predatory predilections. He even waits for Strawberry to become a legal adult so they can have sex, which is played for laughs as they go at it. The problem isn’t the fact that this story exists on screen. Rather, it returns to how audiences contend with it beyond the fact that, as this unflinching Gawker review states, “Mikey Saber Is A Very Bad Man.”
There’s no binary when it comes to analyzing morality among characters on screen. In fact, the grayer they are, the more interesting their humanity can be — and inevitably the conversation around that. But in the case of both Alana and Mikey, the nuance of their romantic narratives has been largely neglected, and for “Licorice Pizza” even sterilized, to an awkward degree. That in and of itself is unsettling.