It’s an ironic title, The Way He Looks. There’s a couple of questions buried in it. That becomes clear, anyway, once you learn that the movie’s central character is blind. So who does the “he” of the title refer to? And who is the one looking at him? This sweet Brazilian movie explores those questions in simple, uplifting ways. It reminds us that how we “see” does not always come entirely through our eyes.
Leo (Ghilherme Lobo) is a Sao Paolo teenager who goes to class at a “normal” school alongside sighted students. Only, he sits at a desk equipped with a braille typewriter that lets him take notes during his teachers’ lessons. Schoolmates treat him more or less the same. Sure, due to his difference he gets the inevitable bullying from a couple of guys — because they’re guys, and that’s what guys at school do, hello?
Leo seems unflappable in the face of any hazing. Even if it bothered him, he’s got his BFF Giovana (Tess Amorim) to bolster his spirits. It’s pretty clear that, as a teenager now, Giovana wouldn’t mind if Leo saw her as, y’know, more than just the kid he’s known since the sandbox. But Leo is focusing outward; he doesn’t catch her sighs and cues. He wants to “see” the world.
His urge to sign up for an exchange program abroad horrifies his overprotective parents. But in the midst of that small crisis, something happens to expand Leo’s horizon — and Giovana’s as well. A new kid arrives in school: Gabriel (Fabio Audi). He’s dreamy. Everybody says so, especially the popular girl, Karina. Weirdly, though, Gabriel cuts through the Mean Girls / Cool Guys hierarchy of his new school. He doesn’t just take the empty desk behind Leo, he dares to befriend him.
The friendship begins as what it seems to be: a stranger to the scene gets his bearings by spending time with a smart but somewhat isolated classmate, who could use somebody to hang with besides his platonic girlfriend, Giovana. The first of a couple of triangles ensues, as Giovana resents that Leo now spends all his time working with Gabriel on a history essay on ancient Greece they’ve been assigned to compose. She’s jealous. And, quietly, so is Leo every time he hears that mean girl Karina is making eyes, so to speak, at Gabriel.
So here’s a small spoiler. The movie has a homoerotic angle that emerges smoothly, delicately and with complete conviction. Beautifully handled by the young actors, the development is in service to the larger story of three young people just trying to figure their lives out — especially as the solo condition of childhood changes into the need to connect with someone else. (A couple of scenes are both sexually charged and relatively chaste.)
Visually, the movie is pretty pedestrian. It relies on a lot of walk-and-talk scenes, or conversations by the kids in their rooms or while sunbathing. It’s easy to imagine it as a stage play. Like the 1996 British sleeper Beautiful Thing (which was a stage play), The Way He Looks gets a lot of its charm from its simple, honest approach and the direct emotional transparency of its young actors. First-time writer-director Daniel Ribeiro enlists our sympathy and empathy for the kids. And he’s earned a big plaudit. His movie is Brazil’s official submission for best foreign language film at the Oscars.
The Way He Looks. With Ghilherme Lobo, Fabio Audi, Tess Amorim. Written and directed by Daniel Ribeiro. In Portuguese with subtitles. Unrated. 95 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.