In writing Luca, the latest film by Pixar, director Enrico Casarosa claimed that he wanted to “talk about a friendship.” This arose after the film gained traction in the mainstream media and queer social circles, with the film widely compared to Call Me By Your Name, another coming of age story with a male protagonist set in Italy. In doing so, Casarosa has been criticised for perpetuating a Disney-Pixar tradition: the production of almost — but not quite — queer narratives. Historically, Disney has been criticised for the queer coding of villains, such as the The Little Mermaid’s Ursula and queer-baiting with other characters, like Elsa in Frozen. Doing so, some argue, has denied vulnerable viewers the representation that big-budget children’s media can so effectively provide at a stage in life in which its viewers first experience structural social expectations.
Set in an Italian coastal town, Luca tracks the emergence of the relationship between Luca and Alberto as they prepare to win the triathlon at a nearby fishing town in the hopes of buying a Vespa. The central conflict revolves around the boys keeping a shared secret: the fact that they’re sea monsters.
Casarosa resists lending their relationship any intimacy, though the emergence of mutual attraction is not reliant on perceived milestones like kissing to be genuine, especially considering Luca and Alberto’s young age. Even if love must be overt, there are some clear demonstrations of it in the film if one cares to look. Luca and Alberto are physically affectionate at times. A shot of them watching a sunset while embracing each other has been prominent in the film’s advertisement, and a sentimental ending that evokes memories of the drifting away of first love are striking. Even more overtly, the curiously close nonnas who the kids bump into throughout the movie are also revealed to be sea monsters. Whilst Casarosa’s claim that the characters are not romantically involved can withstand the first of these demonstrations, revealing the nonnas as sea monsters, the same as the boys, establishes a notable trend of intimacy between the aquatic interlopers.
More generally, from very early in the film the boys are isolated from their families. Luca is repeatedly told to never approach the ocean’s surface by his family, which forces him to hide his sea-monster identity. This familial tension becomes more intense later in the film when Luca is threatened with being sent away from home after his parents discover that he has been spending time on dry land. Like Luca, Alberto is isolated from his family, living away from home when we first meet him.
The boys aren’t only marginalised at home. They are bullied as well. Casarosa links these experiences with Luca’s fear of going to school despite desperately wanting to, a choice that is reminiscent of the disproportionate bullying of LGBTQIA+ youth in schools. Perhaps more pernicious than this bullying is Portorosso’s hatred of the sea monsters. Hate is spread through posters and the police are weaponised by the town in the pursuit of the sea monsters. While this last observation may be a stretch, to more radical audiences it is possibly revelatory of a greater political message.
The language of discrimination used against the sea monsters is carefully crafted to resemble the positioning of queer people in the real world. Luca and Alberto are told that they disgust the town and that “not everyone will accept” them. It is this from being seen as immoral to that immorality being tolerated which constructs the sea monsters as a different type of villain. Villains who are permissible to the extent that they remain out of sight.
This engagement with how queer people are positioned in society lends Luca its value. Queercoded, nearly queer, characters are bound by discussion of whether they truly are queer, limited by the imagination of individual viewers. Luca flirts with this sort of interpretation but fortunately goes further. Through his narrative of struggle and his exploration of social legitimacy Casarosa recognises the struggle of all those who are marginalised. Not just young queer people.
It ultimately doesn’t matter if Luca and Alberto are in a romantic relationship, or even if they are queer. The film’s message sheds heteronormative tropes of friendship and belonging and allows children to feel secure in the challenging parts of their identities. Not be limited as a queer film will hopefully allow this core message to be consumed by those who may have otherwise been denied access to such material.