We tell children from an early age that it's important to accept and celebrate people for their individuality, for being different, whether that's to do with who they love, where they're from, or what they look like. We do this within a social construct that only celebrates individuality according to a narrow definition, as long as it doesn't disrupt a predetermined, socially accepted definition of who a person should be. It's easier though to sell children a catchphrase and celebrate everyone's differences than the more delicate and powerful work of also learning to accept themselves. This conceit lies very much at the heart of 'Luca', the latest film from Pixar Animation Studios, and the feature directorial debut for Italian-born filmmaker Enrico Casarosa - a beautifully simple film on its surface, but driven by a gentle undercurrent on the power of self-discovery and understanding.
Luca (Jacob Trembley, 'Room', 'Doctor Sleep'), a young sea monster living on the family farm under the sea off Italy's coast in the 1960s, spends his days herding fish but dreams of greater things. When he meets fellow sea monster Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer, 'It', 'We Are Who We Are'), Luca discovers that he can disguise himself as a human when he isn't wet, and the two boys begin to explore the land above, eventually settling in the town of Portorosso. They meet brilliant loner Guilia (Emma Berman), and together they decide to enter the Portorosso Cup, a triathlon whose prize money will help Luca and Alberto buy a Vespa and pursue their dream of exploring the world. The problem is that everyone in Portorosso is on the lookout for sea monsters to catch and kill, and the two boys must keep their true identity secret to keep safe.
Constructed with the visual and narrative simplicity of a children's book, 'Luca' is a rare and precious gem of a film, lacking in cynicism and driven by a clear understanding of the story it wants to tell. It sparkles with the magic of childhood discovery, of the wide-eyed wonder in seeing the world for the first time and the unexpected pitfalls of trying to find your place within it. Luca inherently knows his place isn't under the sea, and his salvation in finding both Alberto and Guilia is in finding others who feel the same way. Rather than weighing down their journey with musings on mortality and responsibility, Casarosa and his team wisely construct them an adventure with clear tasks and a clear objective - win the race and buy a Vespa - giving the film ample space to focus on character development through action rather than clunky exposition. This is where a comparison to Studio Ghibli holds most true - a fundamental understanding of how those films revel in the power of simplicity. 'Luca' moves with the ease and joy of a summer's day, bouncing on the laughter of adventure and discovery, bolstered by a deep need to know where you fit within the world.
There has been a lot of discussion around whether 'Luca' qualifies as a "queer" narrative. If your definition of the word "queer" only relates to a non-heteronormative identity, then perhaps 'Luca' doesn't quite qualify, but even if the film doesn't fall within that definition, it still offers a complex and delicate exploration of the nature of "otherness", which is perhaps a better word to use to describe it. The fact that Luca and Alberto are sea monsters is an obvious example, similar to Ariel in 'The Little Mermaid' or the Amphibian Man in 'The Shape Of Water', but 'Luca' explores a much wider scope of "otherness", including gender, race and disability. It does so in simple, almost archetypal ways, but that doesn't make them any less powerful, especially within the context of a film aimed at a younger audience. For Luca, Alberto and Guilia, their individuality has been weaponised against them (either consciously or unconsciously), even beyond the fact that the two boys aren't human. The Portorosso Cup becomes not just a challenge of strength or skill, but to push through the barriers set up by their belief in themselves as not being good enough. Luca can dream, and Alberto can pretend, and Guilia can rail against the walls put in front of her, but they need to believe in themselves before they can cross the finish line and blossom into the people they want to be - and even better, be seen for the people they want to be.
In this lies the heart of 'Luca', and what ultimately makes it such a special film. It isn't only a story on the art of being accepted, but also the art of allowing yourself to be accepted, to be vulnerable enough to allow yourself to be seen by others as who you are. We often think of acceptance as an external force, but often the internal must come first. This is a revealing process, where our greatest scars are exposed for all to see and critique, and where we put ourselves in the greatest danger. For Luca and Alberto, being seen as sea monsters might put their lives in danger, but it would also threaten their friendship with Guilia and the life they are trying to construct. For Alberto, the threat is even greater - that if Luca knew his scars, he might be even more inclined to reject him. His journey is, in many ways, the most powerful in the film, as we discover that, emotionally, Alberto has the most to risk and the greatest hurdle to jump.
'Luca' moves with the ease and joy of a summers day, bouncing on the laughter of adventure and discovery, and bolstered by a deep need to know where you fit within the world.
What Casarosa constructs for them is not just a world where these threats are palpable, but where they are surrounded by role models who can guide them through that process. Very quickly, Guilia identifies them as underdogs like herself, opens her arms and allows them to construct a newfound family with her. She also has her father Massimo (Marco Barricelli), a burly and powerful fisherman who loves his daughter unconditionally and who works his trade with only one arm. They offer a port in the storm, where their actions and behaviour speak more for them, not where they come from or what they look like. What the boys are taught is the importance of self-worth, and that if we can believe that we ourselves are deserving of love and friendship, then we can believe that others might think so too.
In that sense, 'Luca' is very much a film about the process of "coming out", of stepping into the sun and standing proudly as the person you are regardless of the risk. It doesn't matter whether or not Luca or Alberto are LGBTIQ+ characters; their journey still mirrors the journeys of millions of young people, not just seeking acceptance for their sexuality or their gender identity or for the shape and function of their bodies or the colour of their skin. Perhaps the most magical quality of 'Luca' is the manner in which anyone can see themselves reflected in it; an acknowledgement of the collective power of individuality. The narrative may not have the density of a film like 'Moonlight', but that doesn't diminish its message or the power of its achievement. And I haven't even mentioned the strength and confidence of Casarosa's direction, the staggering beauty and delicious whimsy of the animation, the boisterous joy of the vocal performances, or what a slam-dunk Dan Romer's score is.
I'm now going to talk about the end of the film, so if you haven't seen it yet, maybe stop reading here.
Perhaps no moment in 'Luca' more perfectly captures its spirit and its beauty than its final minutes, with Luca and Alberto saying goodbye as Luca jumps onto a train, finally achieving his dream of going to school with Guilia and learning about the wonders of the world. These two boys had embraced this new world together - a world with each other at the centre - but the next step of self-discovery must be one done on their own. As the train pulls away, Alberto races after it, and as he does, his human form falls away and he runs after Luca as a sea monster. In the final shot, we see Luca hanging from the door as the train races along the Italian Riviera, tears streaming down his face, and in our last view of him, his human form falls away too. He is off to discover the world, as himself. Just thinking about this moment brings tears to my eyes. It can be impossibly hard to believe that we are enough, that the person we are in our heart and soul is something worthy of a place in this world. 'Luca' is a celebration of those precious, delicate, gigantic moments where, perhaps even for a moment of dazzling light, we truly believe that we are.