For young Brazilian Leonardo, burgeoning adolescence is more difficult than it is for others. Leo has never been kissed; Leo is also blind. Daniel Ribeiro’s film The Way He Looks follows Leonardo’s interactions with jeering classmates and overbearing parents—and his dawning realization that he’s gay.
Leonardo strives to pull away from the constant supervision of his helicopter parents but doesn’t quite know how. Regardless of the friendship with his best friend, Giovana, the introduction of new student Gabriel provides him with an individual who aids in his escape from the confines of routine, and shows him the way to the life of acceptance and freedom that he’s always craved. The classic “twist” on this story of adolescent awakening? A love triangle between the three main characters where each encounters jealously, insecurity and companionship, and tentative attempts to find a place in each other’s lives.
Unquestionably an art film, the cinematography and sets supplement the youthfulness of the story. Pastel colors and lots of light accentuate the innocence of the characters and their situation, and the featured music of indie pop band Belle and Sebastian, representing the changes in Leonardo’s life, lends to the upbeat tone. Still, the film is deeper than its candy-coated exterior; a serious conversation about the pressures of adolescence is present just beneath the surface.
The film is based on Ribeiro’s 2010 award-winning short film I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone, and uses the same actors to flesh out an already intriguing story of vulnerability, breaking routine and desire. The Way He Looks touches the same themes but with more focus on dialogue and acting, and takes advantage of the longer format to flesh out the characters.
In an interview, Ribeiro says he “wanted to create a universal story that, gay or straight, blind or not, everyone would be able to relate to,” a sentiment that shines through in a film that addresses tolerance and acceptance.
The Way He Looks is a commentary on attraction without sight, our definitions of sexual orientation and the prejudices society places on both of these factors. Ribeiro’s vision was to remove homosexuality as an obstacle or problem in plot, and instead “prove to society, friends and family that being gay is ‘normal.'” Leonardo’s sexual orientation is not the focal point of the film; instead, it’s the desires and experiences of first love that we all recognize.
The Way He Looks is the official Brazilian entry for the Academy Awards, and has already won the FIPRESCI Prize and Teddy Award from the Berlin International Film Festival, the Audience Award at the Frameline Film Festival, and is an official selection at the Cannes Film Festival.
‘The Way He Looks’ opens Nov. 14 at Rialto Cinemas, 6868 McKinley St., Sebastopol. In Portuguese with English subtitles.