Transfiguring Adoption’s Overview:
Luca (2021) starts out strangely reminiscent of The Little Mermaid—a sea creature is fascinated with human culture and longs to experience it for themselves. However, Luca quickly finds its own legs (pun intended) and is an original story about friendship and shares the message that our similarities are much more important than our differences and that the family we find can be just as meaningful as the family we’re born into.
The movie is colorful and fun, with minimal harmful triggers and is likely suitable for all ages and one that the whole family can enjoy together!
** Spoilers Could Be Ahead **
How Is This Relevant To Adoption & Foster Care?
Luca does not specifically address foster care or adoption. However, there is a character whom we learn was abandoned by his father and is eventually taken under the wing of another family. There are also many themes that children who have experienced trauma may relate to. The three main characters (Luca, Alberto and Giulia) all feel like they’re different and don’t fit, and are even bullied because of it. Many foster/adoptive children feel this way, especially when they are in a new home or school where they don’t know anyone. They will likely empathize strongly with these main characters. Additionally, Luca and Alberto are sea creatures who have disguised themselves as humans and are in a constant state of worry about being discovered. This can feel very similar to the way our foster/adoptive youth may feel like they have to hide their past of being adopted or in care for fear of being rejected.
- “Silenzio Bruno!” (Silencing Negative Inner Voice)
Early on in the film Luca expresses some fear about trying new things and Alberto tells him to say, “Silenzio Bruno!” whenever he feels this way as a way to drown out his self-doubt and negative inner voice. Luca takes this catchphrase on and frequently says it to himself whenever he is doing something that makes him a little bit nervous. Of course, we don’t want our children to silence the voice that tells them riding a poorly-designed Vespa down a steep cliff is a bad idea, as Luca does. However, negative self-talk can be incredibly damaging and is very common in children who have experienced abuse. Children who have been through trauma tend to have poor self-esteem and self-worth. This, often combined with anxiety, leads them to not try new things because they worry they aren’t good enough and convince themselves they can’t do it. This catchphrase can be a fun way to help them counteract their negative self-talk. They could use this phrase or even pick something else. Help them practice saying their catchphrase anytime they feel negative thoughts about how they can’t do something, or aren’t good enough, just like Luca does throughout the movie.
- Accepting Differences
In a bit of an amusing dichotomy, we have sea creatures who are afraid of the ‘land monsters’ and humans who are afraid of ‘sea monsters. This is a great illustration that most of the time we assume things will be scary because we don’t know or understand them, but eventually realize that we had nothing to be afraid of once we get to know them. The same principle is demonstrated here—as Luca and Alberto live among the humans, they realize that they aren’t the scary monsters they’ve been led to believe. And when Luca and Alberto are eventually exposed as sea creatures, the humans initially react with fear and mistrust but then realize that the sea creatures mean them no harm and they were all afraid for no reason. This can be a great catalyst for discussing diversity and that just like in the movie, it is our similarities that matter much more than our differences, and that everyone deserves love and acceptance rather than fear or hate. Another great example is in the character of Massimo, Giulia’s father. He only has one arm, but this is not his defining characteristic and is not even dwelled on tremendously in the movie. It’s just who he is and his disability doesn’t limit his life. Alberto asks him about it at one point and he simply says that he was born that way and all the characters accept it and move on.
- Navigating Friendship Dynamics
Youth from a background of trauma often struggle to make friends. They’ve likely moved homes and schools multiple times and often have challenging behavioral issues as a result of their trauma. In addition, they may not have had a lot of positive relationship behavior modeled for them. All of these factors together lead to a huge struggle to establish and maintain friendships. In this movie we see a trio of friend’s form: Luca (a sea creature who longs to experience human life), Alberto (a sea creature who has been abandoned and alone for many years), and Giulia (a young human girl who is very into science and ostracized by her peers). The road to friendship is a bit rocky—while Alberto and Luca become best friends very quickly, they clash with Giulia initially but end up banding together due to a shared goal to win the triathlon. This is a great opportunity to talk about how the group forms a friendship based on shared interests and the ways they nurture and grow their relationships together. Another great aspect of this to talk about is the concept of jealousy within friendships. Luca and Alberto are initially inseparable and Giulia is more of an outsider to the pair. However, Luca and Giulia begin to bond over their shared interest in science and Alberto begins to feel jealous and left out. However, in the end he is able to resolve these feelings and even helps Luca go away to school with Giulia. Even though he will miss him, he wants what’s best for his friend. So not only do we get to see how a friendship forms and grows, but the ways in which characters resolve the natural conflicts that occur within any relationship. This should provide lots of opportunities for discussion!
- Healthy Goodbyes
At the end of the movie, Alberto realizes that he and Luca have different dreams and that to be a supportive friend they have to go their separate ways for a while. Luca goes away to school with Giulia so he can learn and discover the world and explore his passions. Alberto stays in Porto Russo with Giulia’s dad who has agreed to take him in and teach him to be a fisherman. What Luca needs most in this moment is to get out into the world and experience new things. And what Alberto needs is the stability and security of being part of a family after being on his own for so long. Alberto is able to recognize and accept this, even though it means a separation from his friend. For children in foster or adoptive situations they often don’t have a chance to experience a healthy goodbye and rather experience sudden and traumatic displacement sometimes without any chance to say goodbye at all. Separations are a normal part of life for all of us, so it’s important to model what a healthy one looks like, so that children know that saying goodbye doesn’t always have to be traumatic. This is a great opportunity to discuss how to engage in a healthy goodbye with loved ones.
- Maladaptive Parenting/Survival Behavior
Luca has a very overprotective mother. Every time Luca mentions humans or wanting to travel to the surface, his mother tells him that they’re murderers or he’s going to die. Now, she has valid reasons for these concerns but the way in which she approaches these concerns with her son is problematic and likely contributes to the anxiety he experiences. After she discovers that he disobeyed her, she tells him he’s being sent to live with his somewhat creepy uncle ‘for his own safety’, though this clearly scares Luca and feels more like punishment than protection.
Luca lies to his parents several times in order to visit the surface and spend time with his friend Alberto. While this is only a minor plot point, it reinforces the idea that lying to caregivers in order to do a forbidden activity is okay. For many children who have experienced trauma, they don’t trust adults and may already be prone to lying to them, so seeing this portrayed on screen with minimal consequences may be problematic.
- Unrealistic stunts/Peril
This is most obvious in the scene where Luca and Alberto are building their ‘Vespa’ and racing it down the hillside. The movie employs what is affectionately referred to as ‘Disney Physics’: things that should be impossible aren’t and no one ever gets hurt doing the stunt. Unfortunately, in the real-world riding a wood-and-nail Vespa down a steep hillside into an ocean full of sharp rocks would be incredibly dangerous. There are also a number of other instances where the children engage in perilous stunts that should not be attempted in real life, but may be tempting for those with poor impulse control to attempt to reenact.
- Running Away
After his parents find out he’s been visiting the surface, they tell Luca that he’s being sent to live with his uncle in the Deep Ocean. This frightens Luca, as does the thought that he’ll never see Alberto again. So, in response Luca runs away with Alberto to the human lands, putting himself in danger. However, Luca makes friends with Giulia and her family and ends up having a great time. This may glorify running away to children who are prone to that behavior.
There is a LOT of bullying throughout the film. The other children in the village are very cruel to Giulia and also make fun of Luca and Alberto when they first arrive, saying they smell and teasing them about their clothing. These are likely to be sensitive subjects for children who have experienced trauma, as bullying is frequent among this demographic, especially relative to being ‘different’. The primary instigator of this bullying is Ercole. It’s not clear whether he’s an adult or just a much older teen but it’s extremely uncomfortable the way he continuously harasses the young children.
Giulia’s father is a fisherman. He has harpoons hanging in his house and we see him using a large meat cleaver to cut fish. However there is a scene where he turns to face Luca and Alberto still holding the knife which has blood on it. When Luca and Alberto are revealed as sea monsters they have harpoons pointed at them threateningly, though no harm comes to them.
- Mild Child Endangerment
After Luca runs away with Alberto, his parents follow and try to find him to bring him home. However, since everyone looks different on land than they do in the ocean, they aren’t sure which child is theirs. In an attempt to locate him, they find ways to expose children to water as that turns them back into sea creatures. In some cases, this is as harmless as a water balloon or glass of water splashed on them. But on a few occasions a child is pushed into a fountain or even the ocean. While this is done as a humorous gag, and no child appears to come to any actual harm, watching two adults push children off walls or into the water may be upsetting to children who have been abused or have a fear of water/drowning.
- Mentions of Divorce
Giulia briefly mentions that her parents are separated and she alternates living with her mom and her dad. There aren’t any negative connotations from the mention, though it might be upsetting for children currently adjusting to a divorce or other situation where they frequently move between homes (such as between biological and foster caregivers.)
- Abandonment by Caregiver
We learn that Alberto’s father left one day and never came back. It’s an emotional scene and we see a calendar where Alberto has been marking off the days waiting for his return. He also tells Luca, “You’re the good kid and I’m the kid that ruins everything.” This scene is likely to be difficult to watch for children who have experienced abandonment by caregivers or who identify with Alberto and his belief that he is responsible for ruining his family.
- Emotional Goodbyes
Luca leaves with Giulia to go away to school and Alberto stays behind. Luca wants to go to school and learn and see the world and so he leaves with Giulia. Alberto is not interested in school the way the others are and what he needs is a family- which he has found with Giulia’s father who is training him to be a fisherman. It’s a healthy goodbye for everyone involved as they all understand that they have different needs/wants and are supportive of one another’s dreams. However, it’s still a very emotional scene as the friends say goodbye both to one another and to their respective parents. This may be especially emotional to watch for children who have recently experienced a separation from family members or friends.
About the Author: Jenn Ehlers
Jenn is a central Virginia native who received her BA in Psychology from the University of Virginia in 2012. Since then she has worked for a local mental health agency and the Department of Social Services in various capacities and has been involved in her community’s efforts to create a Trauma Informed Network. Currently Jenn works in vocational rehab and mentors youth in foster care. When she isn’t working, Jenn enjoys writing stories, anything and everything Harry Potter, and spending time with her niece and nephew.
**Transfiguring Adoption is a nonprofit organization seeking to nurture growth in foster and adoptive families by giving a HOOT about their families. Transfiguring Adoption does not intend for its reviewers nor its review to be professional, medical or legal advice. These reviews and discussion guides are intended to help parents to better be able to connect and understand their children who come from traumatic backgrounds.