The Gift of Growing Up (and Pixar’s Luca)

“I Never Had any Friends Later on Like the Ones I Had When I Was Twelve”

Guest Contributor / 6.28.21

The article comes to us from Jeb Ralston:

Coming-of-age films and T.V. series seem to be making somewhat of a comeback in recent years, and many of them have done a wonderful job of showcasing the joy of adolescent friendships. Disney Pixar’s Luca is one you can add to that list. Luca is a tender film and arguably one of the most aesthetically pleasing entries into Pixar’s filmography. It has its flaws, but its visual charm and focus on the delights of Italian culture, combined with its genuinely warm simplicity, are enough to cover over any shortcomings.

It is hard to watch something like Luca without thinking about other coming-of-age films and series like Stand by Me, Lady Bird, The Breakfast Club, and Stranger Things, which have captured much of our imaginations. It is not too hard to see that what allures us in these stories is the friendships. Not simply the friendships in themselves, but the sincerity that is at the heart of them. The friends in these stories are quick to apologize, to tell one another how they really feel, and are okay with demonstrating affection for one another in deliberate ways. And there is something there that makes me want to go back to that sort of sincerity and to a way of life that felt simply more to the point — a time of less pretension and political maneuvering.

Growing up seems to carry with it a new set of rules and expectations for how I am supposed to conduct my life and how I should (de)prioritize friendship. And somewhere along the way, the regular time and space to simply be with friends has disappeared. The iconic final line at the end of Stand by Me is one with which many of us can probably resonate: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve.”

I think about this line almost anytime I watch a coming-of-age film like Luca. These films take me back to a time when life felt more sincere and more enchanting. I miss the adventures I had growing up. I miss bike rides to the beach and sneaking into movie theaters. I miss the strange fort we found in the woods littered with beer bottles strewn across that hidden fortress. And I miss the friends who helped me make sense of life when it often felt confusing, unfair, or sometimes just boring. Yet, it is easy to get lost and charmed in those memories to the detriment of life right now and of the friends immediately before me.

Nostalgia can be a powerful force, and it seems that within it there can often be a creeping sort of despair. It is the despair that assumes the best is ultimately behind us, that friendships will never be better than they were, or that life cannot be as sincere as it once was. The gap between present cynicism and past joy seems insurmountable, and often the assumption is that growing up is the problem. The solution though, I believe, is not the perpetual adolescence of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, but the wisdom of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.

Netflix’s The Little Prince — in all of its wonder and whimsy — combats this sort of nostalgic idealism by insisting, “Growing up is not the problem. Forgetting is.” The problem is not the fact that we are finite creatures that develop over time. The problem is that we so often forget who we are and what we have been given.

In Matthew 18, Jesus invites children to be with him and tells his disciples — who have just asked him about who the greatest in the kingdom will be — that they will not even be able to enter the kingdom “unless [they] become like little children,” and that “whoever humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” It is obvious that Jesus is not saying that his disciples must literally become children to enter the kingdom, but that they must become like children with all the acceptance of their frailty and weakness and dependency that is involved therein. And it is these children who are touched by the King of the kingdom.

To be like a child, among other things, is to wonder at and seize upon the gifts presented to us. A child’s dependency eschews cynicism. Like the main characters in Luca (Luca and Alberto) — finding strange contraptions from the world above like Vespas and record-players, or just realizing the gift of friendship they have in one another — to be like a child is to live into the delight of the giftedness of things. Like that child coming to Jesus or like Luca and Alberto embracing one another, to live like a child is to remember that what is before us, whether a friend or a plate of pasta, is a gift given — a gift to be received.

Yet somewhere in the midst of growing up, we learned to fend for ourselves and let the giftedness of things turn into the earning of things. This, of course, is not unreasonable. There are bills to pay, people to take care of, papers to write, and chores to do! But the problem is not age or time, and maybe even growing up in itself can be received as a gift.

We are exposed to much more of life’s difficulties and sufferings as we age. Others let us down. We let ourselves down. Friends move away. People we love die. Yet the giftedness of things still remains even in the sadness, though it may be blurred.

In her final years while coping with lupus, Flannery O’Connor famously wrote, “I can, with one eye squinted, take it all as a blessing.” I find deep consolation in this, and even as I write this I cannot help but think about my high school best friend who died abruptly just two years ago. I had not seen him for many years leading up to his death, but his death rattled me. It still rattles me, like losing a long-lost brother. I loved him and still love him, and I thank God for him. All I have left of him are memories, and I am thankful for those, too, however much they may hurt sometimes, because they remind me of God who gave my friend to me.

But I am also thankful for the friends God has given me today, for the ones who have occupied other places in my heart and life that need mending, reminding me of the giftedness of things both past and present. For the giver of all good gifts and for the friend who gave himself for us.

C. S. Lewis once wrote in his essay, The Weight of Glory:

These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Growing up is not the problem, and perhaps the nostalgia we feel in movies like Luca can be of some use, helping us to see beyond the heartache to the giver behind the giftedness of things.