The Way He Looks is a gentle, low-key coming-of-age-and-coming-out story about teenaged Leonardo, who is blind, discovering his sexuality without the ability to see his crush’s physical beauty. Or, as the poster tagline so succintly puts it, “Not every love happens at first sight.” When we first meet Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo) he is lazing away the summer with his best friend Giovana (Tess Amorim)–the two are positioned in perpendicular around a swimming pool, the only two people in the world. Soon, an attractive new student, Gabriel (Fabio Audi), will provide the hypotenuse to this perfect right angle and throw off the balance of Leonardo and Giovana’s friendship.
When Gabriel is added to their class, Leonardo and Giovana quickly bring him into their group. After pairing up for a school project–which, in an amusingly on-the-nose detail, is a report on Ancient Greece–Gabriel and Leonardo just as quickly start to do things on their own, like dancing to Belle and Sebastian and sneaking out for late-night lunar eclipse viewings, without Giovana. Leonardo is clearly starting to fall for Gabriel, and Giovana, who has deeper feelings for Leonardo, feels shut out.
The plot is the stuff of high school drama, which is not to say it’s unworthy of being depicted on film, but writer-director Daniel Ribeiro takes a distant and reserved approach to the material that often leaves it feeling somewhat inert. It doesn’t help that, despite quality performances from all three of the principal young actors, their characters are rather thinly drawn. The best scenes are the ones in which Ribeiro visually depicts Leonardo’s particular confluence of traits (adolescence, blindness, homosexuality). At one point, Leonardo goes off in search of Gabriel. He finds him in the swimming pool. Leonardo calls out. Gabriel responds, and Leonardo smiles widely. He then hears the voice of a girl, and his expression drops. But then the girl tells him that she and Gabriel are naked, and Leonardo’s face instantly lights up as he runs into the pool to join them. Ribeiro’s camera stays locked on Leonardo’s face; we hear what he hears and watch as his expression shifts.
Throughout the film Leonardo bristles at being treated differently because of his blindness and particularly expresses frustration at his parents’ constant overprotectiveness. Yet, in many ways, Ribeiro’s approach to Leonardo seems just as overprotective. Leonard experiences some internal struggle over his sexuality, but he encounters practically no external opposition other than a bit of bullying from a lunkheaded classmate. The world he inhabits is a pretty easy, accommodating place. Though it is certainly a worthwhile endeavor to tell a story about a kid who is able to navigate his sexuality and disability without a grand crisis, the results, while not exactly boring, are a little lifeless. All bad feelings are tidied up in the end; nothing scars. Even scenes in which the sexual tension is most prevalent, such as a shower during which Leonardo’s and Gabriel’s naked bodies are mere inches apart, feel pretty chaste, only dimly hinting at the clumsy ferocity of adolescent sexuality.
Ribeiro has crafted a generally engaging little slice-of-life piece with flashes of visual sophistication that suggest he may well direct a really exceptional film one day. The Way He Looks provides some insight into growing up blind and gay, but Ribeiro unfortunately sands down the rough edges of adolescence, attempts to contain the violent hormonal swirl of first lust. The result is a film that, for all its good intentions with regard to the depiction of sexuality and disability, treats its subject matter with kid gloves.