Teenage gay romance is not a novelty in cinema. British Beautiful Thing (Hettie MacDonald, 1996) and Swedish Fucking Amal (Lukas Moodysson, 1998) delivered riveting love stories between adolescents of the same sex (two boys in the former and two girls in the latter) and the looming consequences of coming out nearly two decades ago. Ribeiro repeats the effort in a convincing and equally touching movie, adding a new context and elements to the story.
Léo (Ghilherme Lobo) is a blind teenage boy who falls in love with a male friend. They are in the same class, surrounded by testosterone-fueled adolescents, bullying and short-lived heterosexual romances. Léo has had to deal with his physical handicap all of his life, and he does not accept that he should be treated differently. He wants to go back home on his own (without a guide), and even tries to convince his parents to send him in an exchange programme to the USA.
Bullying is conspicuous. The fellow students mock the sound of his typewriter, his holding arms with a male guide, and they almost trick him into kissing a dog during a spin the bottle game (by telling him it is a girl). Yet Léo consistently refuses to be the underdog.
He slowly realises that he has to juggle with a second handicap, this time a social one: homosexuality. Gay rights has moved a long way in Brazil in the past 10 years, and gay marriage is fully legalised, but this does not prevent homophobia from showing its ugly face in places like school playgrounds.
Like in its British and Swedish predecessors, overcoming bullying is predictably a central theme in The Way He Looks. The gay kiss is the climax in all three films. And the inevitable disclosure is the confrontation of the bullying and the public display of affection. Once again, Léo does not allow his handicap to limit him. Instead, he embraces it.
Blindness in homosexuality is a virtually untouched theme in cinema. It subverts a number of elements. Firstly, the male gaze is normally dominant and the leitmotif in mainstream cinema. And the male on male gaze is often offensive, particularly if the subject of desire is a heterosexual man. In The Way He Looks, sexuality is constructed in a different way: the smell of a shirt, a comforting voice, the touch of a hand applying sun cream. The seduction elements and devices are subtle and tender.
Ribeiro depicts the romance in a simple yet powerful way, and the film is never racy, over-the-top and vulgar. The characters are credible, the actors are good and the narrative is convincing. The honesty, the affection and the intricate delicateness of the story portrayed will linger with audiences – gay and straight alike – for a long time.
There is, however, one element of the film that has come under fire. While Lobo does an excellent job in portraying Léo, the actor is fully-sighted. Disabled actors have very limited space in Brazilian cinema. In the UK the Disability Film Festival has existed for well over a decade. Critics argue that the decision to cast a fully-sighted actor to play a blind character is tantamount to blackfacing, and that it does little to help partially-sighted and blind actors.
The Way He Looks won the FIPRESPI Best Feature Award and the Teddy Award for Best LGBT-themed film in the 64th Berlin Film Festival (in 2014). The film had a theatrical release in more than 15 countries, and it is now widely available for viewing on DVD and online. DMovies selected it as one of “the dirtiest Brazilian films of the past 10 years”.