Brazil’s entry for the Foreign Language Oscar race is a reflection of that country’s relative progress in gay acceptance. Already host to the world’s largest pride parade, Brazil legalized same-sex marriage last year.
In “The Way He Looks,” writer-director Daniel Ribeiro’s feature debut, teenage Leo’s desires for his new friend Gabriel aren’t even his biggest concern. Rather, his sweet and slight coming-of-age journey focuses primarily on the blind high-schooler’s pursuit of greater independence from his overprotective parents and making room for a new friendship alongside his co-dependent bond with life-long pal Giovana.
“The Way He Looks” isn’t necessarily an awards frontrunner, nor should it be one. For a story about a disabled, gay, urban, upper-middle-class adolescent boy who listens only to classical music (until he’s introduced to Belle and Sebastian), it’s a cautiously universal tale, seemingly calculated to be as relatable as possible.
The film begins with a John Hughes-ian fret: Leo (Ghilherme Lobo) lies by a pool, wondering aloud to his bestie Giovana (Tess Amorim) when he’ll receive his first kiss. (His preference for boys is the one thing Giovana doesn’t know about him.) Later, Leo presses his lips on the glass door in the shower while thinking about the new boy in school: lanky, curly-haired Gabriel (Fabio Audi).
Leo remains something of a cipher, defined primarily by his dual otherness as blind and gay. Like Giovana and Gabriel, he’s hyper-articulate, even-keeled, and incorrigibly (and refreshingly) innocent, his days taken up with Tchaikovsky and visits to his grandmother. The teenage characters’ unworldliness is believable, but the first two qualities make for a not-quite-convincing portrait of adolescent precocity, as well as a rather emotionally subdued drama.
But “The Way He Looks” isn’t interested in theatrics, anyway; its conflicts and tension lie in small rebellions against parents and navigating the trickier patches in deep, loyal friendships. There’s poignancy in Leo’s request to his parents to spend a year studying abroad, and even more so in Giovana’s hurt feelings when she feels replaced by Gabriel, for whom she may have stirrings as well.
The gentleness of the main storylines makes the constant bullying that Leo is subject to by a classmate strain credibility for its outright cruelty, but it’s probably much milder than what real kids do to each other.
Admirable throughout is the balance that Ribeiro strikes between dewy eroticism and the contextualization of sexuality as just a single aspect of one’s identity, albeit an essential one. His camera is indulgent but not gratuitous when Leo and Gabriel take a shower side-by-side at the school gym, but it’s just as often focused on Leo’s face as he idly attempts to figure out if he’s closer to his old friend or to his new one on any given day.
As with most stories about young adults, the best scenes are centered on new experiences, like Gabriel explaining what’s so enthralling about an eclipse or taking Leo to a horror movie and narrating each new kill. (It’s too bad, then, that all the female characters, in particular Giovana and Leo’s mom, are all excessively maternal figures from whom Leo wants to flee.)
But the best first times can happen in a bedroom, too, as when Gabriel introduces Leo to his favorite band. Your first love and the your first Belle and Sebastian song: you’ll remember those forever.