Everyone will root for the two teen protags in Daniel Ribeiro’s sweet gay coming-of-age debut, “The Way He Looks,” since the boys are so likable and their route to first love has an undeniably touching quality. Centered on a blind high schooler chomping at the bit for independence while discovering his sexuality, the pic has genuine appeal, though in truth the script and direction are little more than average. However, its affirmative stance could be vitally formative for gay teens, and Berlin’s Teddy Award, plus Fipresci’s Panorama nod, should open doors to niche release worldwide.
Ribeiro first floated the story in his short “I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone,” made expressly to raise funding for the feature. Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo), blind from birth, is largely well integrated into his school in Sao Paulo, though a few bullying kids occasionally make life unpleasant. His wisecracking best friend, Giovana (Tess Amorim), vigilantly looks out for him even though he’s blithely unaware of the torch she carries. Then new kid Gabriel (Fabio Audi) arrives in class, a sudden object of interest for all the girls. Leonardo is intrigued, Gabriel solicitous. Soon they’re hanging out together, much to Giovana’s fury, since she feels shut out, no longer the sole caretaker to her BFF.
Concurrent with the boys’ deepening friendship is Leonardo’s increasing frustration with his overprotective parents; in this, Ribeiro errs by making them behave as if their son’s been blind for just a few years rather than his entire life. Mom (Lucia Romano) in particular is reluctant to let Leonardo remain alone in the house even for an afternoon; Dad (Eucir de Souza), in a nice speech, is more supportive of his son’s interest in study-abroad programs, wanting to be sure his yearning for independence stems from the right reasons.
Most of the dialogue feels recycled from countless teen pics, and were this a film about a blind boy falling in love with a girl, there’d be nothing to make it stand out. But this is a gay story, done with tenderness and capturing the hesitancy of expressing affection when rejection can have ugly consequences. Had “The Way He Looks” been made 20 years ago, it would be hard to overestimate the impact it could have had on gay teens desperate for this sort of positive representation; although the field has expanded somewhat recently, this could still be a meaningful catalyst in boosting confidence and self-worth for those struggling to come out.
Ribeiro, who won the Crystal Bear in 2008 with “You, Me and Him,” includes a few visually pleasing setpieces, such as a scene of Gabriel teaching Leonardo to dance. Otherwise, lensing is professional in a standard way, carefully ensuring that the filtered lighting sympathetically bathes everyone in a cool attractive glow. Unexpected musical choices feel just right.