by Ken B.
Everyone knows at least one person who is so good at everything, with seemingly no darkness or flaw, that we feel like we should collectively take up arms and despise them forever out of pure spite. But we can’t, because they’re also just so nice. The Way He Looks is the movie equivalent of that person. Based off an equally infectious short film, writer/director Daniel Ribeiro succeeds at turning hearts to mush in 96 minutes. I should hate this movie. It’s so openly sentimental, a trait normally found reprehensible by many. It’s unabashedly doe-eyed and sweet, even going so far as to feature the Belle and Sebastian song “There’s Too Much Love” like three or four times. But how could anyone hate something that’s just so pretty and wonderful? (And a film that has such good taste in music).
The Way He Looks is set in a middle class neighborhood in São Paulo, Brazil. Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo) is a blind teenage boy, who passes vacation days with his best friend Giovana (Tess Amorhim). Leo has been blind since birth, and his parents, especially his mother (Lúcia Romano), are quite overprotective, and while Leo feels he is ready to gain some form of independence in his life, such comments for the matter are either ignored or shot down outright. The question is raised of if any interesting changes in the near future are even possible. When school heads back into session, the answer comes in the form of Gabriel (Fabio Audi), a new student that joins Leo and Giovana’s class. Giovana is smitten, yet the tawdry Karina (Isabela Guasco) makes loud and obvious advances first, but he doesn’t really reciprocate. Around this time, Leonardo is going through a period in his life of revaluation and realization, and through this, he begins to realize that he has feelings for Gabriel that stretch beyond the boundaries of friendship.
It might somehow feel self-contradictory that I would write a positive review of this film, when weeks ago I wrote some generally negative comments on Letterboxd about a Dutch film called Boys, a film also about a teenager coming to terms with his sexual orientation. The difference, I believe, is that while Boys had a rigid structure filled with already tread material, and as a result, made itself forgettable, The Way He Looks is spontaneous, flowing, and fresh. The script is well paced, as in it moves on its own speed and is fully aware of what it’s doing. Ribeiro looks over the proceedings with an even, skillful hand, bringing the audience to truly care about Leonardo almost immediately.
The performances are strong and relatable, especially with Lobo, who captures many subtleties about playing a blind character. He crafts Leonardo with budding solidarity and sympathy. Lobo also carries great chemistry with Amorhim and Audi, with the actors able to take the varied interpersonal relationships of their characters and bring them to life with great efficiency. They are framed within beautiful cinematography from Pierre de Kervoche, who soaks the film in a warm summer haze, a thick glow of nostalgia washing over every frame. Scenes where the main characters laze around by the community pool are intimate and atmospheric, further cementing an arresting visual style.
This was Brazil’s official entry for the 2015 Oscars in the category of Best Foreign Language Film. It’s a small, light movie – it never had a chance. Not only did it miss the nominees, it wasn’t even on the shortlist. Fans of the film were disappointed. I am too. I liked The Way He Looks more than I liked Ida, the movie that eventually won the prize. I guess I identify with this movie more than one about a novice nun in Communist Poland. I think it’s easy to understand why. Its mood is irresistible. It is capable of winning everyone over. A desire to warm hearts is both unapologetic and rousingly successful. Homophobia and/or an ableist anti-blind rhetoric would have to run awfully deep for one to not be charmed. It’s just something that you watch with a stupid smile on your face for the whole runtime. A peaceful, moving alternative to the dark brushes of depression that run over many LGBT films, The Way He Looks provides a great sense of optimism without becoming naïve or oversimplistic.