Luca is a computer-animated Disney/Pixar film that many may have missed or overlooked, since it came out during the height of the pandemic. However, the beauty, themes and sense of wonder in this picture are so fun, touching and moving. I paid it no mind as it stared at me from the Disney+ menu, but after a couple recommendations I finally decided to give it a chance.
I can say that the film is objectively simple, humble and gorgeous, boasting stellar voice acting from a fantastic cast. Subjectively, I found so many parallels to my inner child in these lively characters and the story itself particularly engaging when viewed through a queer lens. Without spoiling too much of the plot, I wanted to go over some of this film’s wonderful moments and why it tugged at my heartstrings.
Directed by Enrico Casarosa in his feature directorial debut, the film is largely autobiographical and focuses on the childhood friendship between two boys with very different approaches to life. Luca is timid and cautious, while Alberto is carefree and adventurous. Together, they escape the lives their families set out for them and become inseparable, with Luca discovering more about himself than he ever thought possible. The story is a coming-of-age tale but told through the lens of this relationship and the dynamic between the two boys.
Set in the Italian Riviera, we are introduced to Luca Paguro and his family of sea monsters (oh yes, there’s Disney magic and transformation at play). The sea monsters consider humans the dangerous ones and treat them as if they were land monsters. This cultural separation divides Luca as his curiosity over the surface world and desire to explore beyond his family’s goatfish farm lead him to the surface. Here he learns his kind automatically take human form when dry and, spurred on by his new friend (and fellow sea monster) Alberto, dares to venture on land. The boys spend their days together, losing track of time as they build and play, with Alberto encouraging Luca to take more risks. They enjoy their careless summer and dream of owning a Vespa so that they can freely travel the world together.
Many scenes revolve around Luca imagining his and Alberto’s future. His imagination is so beautiful and the creative animation sequences in which he daydreams are astounding. Luca grows more confident, daring to jump off cliffs with Alberto and becoming more and more fascinated with what the surface world has to offer.
Casarosa truly captures the sense of an endless summer. The comparatively simple 1959 setting is old-timey enough to create a pervasive sense of innocence, whilst maintaining recognisably relatable enough to a young audience. The deep and personal roots of this story are also very apparent. Casarosa’s real childhood friend Alberto even voices a fisherman in the Italian version and the film is dedicated to him. There is a tangible sense of the wonder of youth and those early relationships that help us to discover ourselves and form who we are.
The universality of such a story is easily applied to many experiences and facets of life. Most of us I’m sure can attest to the excitement of meeting someone in our youth with a completely different life and being awestruck and inspired by them. Being a shy kid who makes friends with a troublemaker is definitely something I relate to. The celebration of friendship in Luca bursts out of the water the moment these two first best friends meet and their dynamic is truly enjoyable to observe.
As Luca is pushed out of his comfort zone by his new friend, who could not be more different from him, he starts to see the world in a new way. Alberto’s encouragement lets him grasp at what he wants from life and build the strength to seek it out. Where this leaves Alberto and their dreams of seeing the world together is another story.
While early friendships help us figure out who we want to become, it doesn’t hurt to have the gorgeous backdrop of the Italian seaside against a vibrant, timeless architecture. The thin meandering cobbled streets and cracked stone walls and colourfully-painted wooden blinds adorning them. Anyone who’s spent time in this part of the world will instantly recognise the comforting setting. What a place to see our protagonist grow up.
Forbidden from the surface and faced with being sent to live in the ocean depths with his uncle, Luca runs away with Alberto and the two make friends with Giulia, a local girl in the nearby town of Portorosso, whilst trying to raise the money to buy their Vespa. Giulia’s gruff fisherman father Massimo allows the boys to stay with them and the two sleep together outside Giulia’s bedroom window beneath the stars. Luca’s ever-growing curiosity about the world and desire to go to human school bring him at odds with Alberto, who was abandoned by his father and considers them both outcasts that will never be accepted in society.
If I haven’t already made it clear, the queer reading of this film is overt and it’s no wonder that it struck a cord with queer youth. That is not to say it is the only reading and in fact, the metaphors of difference, prejudice, parental relationships, friendship and coming of age are widely applicable. The prejudice in the surface folk’s assumption that the sea dwellers are truly monsters (and their subsequent distrust and fear of humans) makes for obvious racial parallels. Casarosa has readily accepted the queer interpretation, even if it was not his explicit intention, and has commented on the sea monsters being a metaphor for feeling different in any capacity; finding oneself is at the core of Luca’s journey.
As applicable as the sea monster metaphor is, it’s particular connection with gay youth stood out to me. Kids that are made to feel different growing up will empathise with Luca’s plight as he struggles to balance what he wants from his life and being told what his life should be. Themes of acceptance are throughout the story, with coming out as oneself, learning to accept oneself and fear of how others will react all being close to home, as well as found family versus the one we are born into.
Alberto’s jealousy over Luca’s growing friendship with Giulia and both boys’ relationships with parental figures speak to the experiences of so many. Taking drastic measures to prevent Luca pursuing school and leaving him, Alberto is subsequently left heartbroken when Luca refuses to acknowledge him. Even here are clear, all-to-familiar parallels to be made to queer experiences and the tribulations of navigating early relationships when wrestling with identity.
Justifiably fearing persecution from the townsfolk, there is a moment where both boys have to choose whether to out themselves as sea monsters. With bullies watching their every move, Luca must come into his own if he wants to stand up for and reconcile with Alberto. Whether other townsfolk will work to challenge the prejudices of the small town plays into questions very relevant today in many areas. Massimo’s acceptance of the boys, in contrast to how adults had treated them thus far, is a theme many queer youth will also be familiar with.
I won’t spoil the ending, but it is incredibly touching and moved me more than I care to admit. Luca coming to terms with his parents’ fallibility in their attempts to shield him from the world he wants to explore and realising there is more to learn from life than what he was told is something that really connected with me. Otherness and oddity are at play, that feeling that you need to hide your true self in order to be accepted. That self-acceptance comes first is one of the hardest things I ever had to learn.
While there is a deep connection between Luca and Alberto, I didn’t necessarily view it as a first romance so much as an acknowledgement of being different. They are both still so young and figuring themselves out, but they’ve found a kinship they can’t explain in words and that felt very real and palpable. Casarosa has welcomed diversity, acceptance and inclusion into a story where one can apply their own identity. Queer themes might not be the focal point of the story, but it’s resonance is at its core.
It’s a film about being open to any difference and that is beautiful. There is even a follow-up short film named Ciao, Alberto which beautifully touches on the father-son dynamic between Alberto and Massimo.
If you’re in this evening with nothing to do, give Luca a go. It’s very gay.