The title itself, Licorice Pizza, is an oddity. It may refer to a popular record store in Los Angeles during the 1970s, which is not featured in the film, however the killer soundtrack might suggest some inspiration. There are also various other pop-cultural references to the term, dating right back to an Abbott and Costello comedy sketch where they used the name to sell unpopular vinyl records.

Either way, there is no definitive rhyme or reason to the title, although its confusion and ambiguity do serve as a fitting allegory to teenage love and the uncertainties that come with it. And upon approach, with the knowledge of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s history of complicated plot devices, it’s reasonable to be apprehensive about his new film. But you can rest assured that the title is about as bewildering as the movie gets, and that Licorice Pizza is in fact a hot contender for being the best film of the year.

Set during the early 1970s, it tells the story of Alana (Alana Haim) and Gary (Cooper Hoffman). She is a 25-year-old Jewish girl at a crossroads in life, unsure of what direction to take but desperate for a purpose. Whereas Gary is an ambitious and entrepreneurial 15-year-old, whose direction in life is paved with get-rich-quick schemes and tenacity.

He falls for her the moment they cross paths and after a persistent pursuit, she succumbs to his charm. At first she is troubled by the age difference but eventually seizes the opportunity to find what she’s been looking for.

Gary’s opportunistic tendencies have him go from being a seasoned child actor on a popular TV show to an eager businessman chasing the next big craze, with Alana onboard as his business partner and best friend. Along the way they drift apart as new influences come into the picture, notably bigger (faster) opportunities for Alana, before finding their way back to each other… and then apart again.

In terms of narrative, Licorice Pizza is a curiosity. On one hand it’s very easy to follow and moves as smoothly as syrup on ice cream, while on the other, the ebbs and flows – and the diversions – are often frustrating. Yet there’s purpose to it all.

Alana and Gary’s story is episodic, and their journey is broken into unarticulated chapters. There are no sequential title cards on screen and everything happens in order, and yet the plot is lined with definable moments – Alana’s brush with a Hollywood actor (Sean Penn modelled on William Holden); Gary’s encounter with the psychotic film producer John Peters (Bradley Cooper, based on the actual figure); and Alana’s time working on a political campaign.

The sum of it all is three character studies; hers, his and theirs. Hers is the story of unrealised potential and His is a coming-of-age fable, while Theirs is an exploration of forbidden love with an almost Lolita-esque nuance.

Paul Thomas Anderson is an auteur whose cinematic voice has become pop-cultural, comparable to contemporaries like Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie and The Coen Brothers. His brand is distinct and provocative and he likes to take his time with his characters. This has served him well in the past but has also been to his detriment.

In fact, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, his overall catalogue of work is marked by some very high moments (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) but is also dogged by some very low ones (Inherent Vice, The Master). With Licorice Pizza he indulges in lengthy engagements, with his camera tracking the characters as they interact and get around, zeroing in on facial expressions that convey a weighty suggestion.

The performances are exceptional and worthy of any and all accolades that come their way. Singer/songwriter turned actress Alana Haim (from the band HAIM) is a revelation, delivering a heartfelt, often gut-wrenching, performance as the young woman full of insecurity and apprehension.

She explores the trials and tribulations of young-womanhood with precision and conveys her character’s precariousness with authenticity. So real was her state of being on screen that the viewer might as well be observing reality, and when the Oscars roll around she deserves recognition.

Excellent also is young Cooper Hoffman as the gawky teenage wunderkind whose life-experiences are decades ahead of his age, but also impede his natural path to maturity. His smitten, doe-eyed obsession with Alana is infectious and it’s impossible not to be taken by his inherent charisma. It’s not at all surprising that this kid is a star in the making – his father was the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whose work with Anderson is legendary.

Other players amongst the ensemble include Tom Waits, Skyler Gisondo, Benny Safdie, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, John Michael Higgins and Christine Ebersole. It’s a typically impressive roll-call from Anderson, with each personality serving a very important purpose.

Fans of Anderson’s work ought to relish every morsel of this wonderful film, which is best described as a melding of Boogie Nights and Punch Drunk Love. And if you throw in a pinch of Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and a dash of Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything, you won’t need any further convincing to see one of the best films of 2021.

In cinemas: December 26
Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson