Any decent film about adolescence will serve as a reminder of how we never want to relive those years. It is downright exhausting to feel feelings for the first time, as all teenagers must, and the ultimate irony is the wrong-minded belief that these feelings are unique. That awkward shift toward maturity is front and center in The Way He Looks, a gentle coming of age drama from Brazil. Although the characters speak Portuguese and their social strata are slightly different than ours, there is something universal about its central love story. It may veer between tenderness and the sort of coy ribaldry we might find in retro porn, but in the hands of writer/director Daniel Ribeiro, the situations always feel natural.
A young guy and girl form a right angle as they lay down next to swimming pool. They’re in their bathing suits, earnestly discussing love, so Ribeiro suggests some sexual tension between them. But in a subtle subversion, the girl Giovana (Tess Amorim) jumps into the water and we realize the boy Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo) cannot see her. He is blind, and their relationship is based on mutual need: he depends on her physically, while she depends on him psychologically. To the chagrin of Leonardo’s parents, he wants more independence, while they’re more comfortable treating him like a child. The catalyst for this simmering tension is Gabriel (Fabio Audi), a new student who inserts himself into the co-dependency between Leonardo and Giovana. Ribeiro shows how blindness compounds Leonardo’s adolescent isolation, and heighten it since Leonardo also discovers that he’s gay.
Ribeiro roots The Way He Looks in everyday high school bullshit. There is a secondary character who mocks Leonardo, and the drama never gets more serious than characters who cannot understand why their friends will not talk to them. This is a welcome departure from teen films like The Fault in Our Stars and The Spectacular Now, which use life and death situations as a metaphor for the solemnity of our teen years. It may seem like not much is at stake, yet Ribeiro is an observant director, one who spends time with his characters so that we also come to care about them. The only way he indulges the trio is through music: Leonardo loves classical music – there is a quiet, sad scene where he listens to Arvo Part’s “Spiegel Im Spiegel” – while Gabriel prefers Belle & Sebastian. The song “There’s Too Much Love” plays several times in The Way He Looks, and it hits always hits the right emotional cues. Ribeiro probably counts on the fact that the likely audience for his film loved Belle & Sebastien back when they were kids.
The Way He Looks is so slight that it needs strong performances or else it’d seem inconsequential. The three young actors at the center downplay their outward feelings of alienation, which makes it easy to identify with them. Amorim has the more thankless role, as Giovana’s main purpose is to act like a stick in the mud, then step out of the way at the precise right moment. Lobo and Audi, on the other hand, have genuine chemistry as boys who are too timid to be lovers. Late in the film, the tension escalates with a shower scene that could have become unintentional comedy, if weren’t for the fact that Leonardo and Gabriel are so scared of what the other might think. While Leonardo’s blindness is a novelty in this genre, it ultimately serves as a reminder that all kids go through the same bullshit, disability or not. The Way He Looks has an inevitable ending, although it is not conventional, exactly. The pair do not end up together just because the plot requires it. It’s also because they realize they deserve to be happy, which is what makes the film’s rewards simple, and also rich.