A Brazilian tale of blind love, Daniel Ribeiro’s The Way He Looks is a lyrical mood piece of adolescent self-discovery but short on feeling.
The Way He Looks
Playground Love by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Winner of the Teddy Award at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, The Way He Looks is Brazilian director’s Daniel Ribeiro’s debut feature. It takes place in the suburbs of São Paulo, but despite its sunny location, it’s filmed in the subdued, muted tones of a cloudy summer, as two young schoolboys struggle to recognise their hushed feelings for each other. Romance comes unexpectedly for both of them. But after all, love is blind, isn’t it?
It’s the school holidays, and Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo) spends it at the pool with his best friend since childhood Giovana (Tess Amorim), waiting for an adventure or a great love. Blind since birth, he’s taken home by Giovana and babysat by his grandmother, but sneaking out to parties and dreaming of an escape from his overprotective parents on a student exchange programme abroad, Leo starts to find himself. His usual classroom dependence on Giovana is thrown off-balance with the arrival of new boy Gabriel (Fabio Audi). And when their teacher puts them into same-sex pairs for a school project, Leo is launched into a new world of cinema, alcohol and love.
Literally translated as Today I Want To Go Home Alone, Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho is more a film about teenage independence than coming out. It’s a freedom of new experiences – as Gabriel takes Leo to the cinema or to a hilltop late one night to witness the moon’s eclipse. And while the film deftly conjures up an adolescence of jealous girlfriends, alcohol-fuelled parties and games of spin the bottle, Ribeiro’s film is at its strongest as a portrait of male friendship – a mutual exchange of music and ideas as well as a gradual unfolding of trust, as Leo puts his white stick aside, confident that his friend knows when to warn him of a step or a gap. And it’s a joy that finds its conclusion in the final scene, aS Leo cycles for the first time, his world suddenly opened into a new dimension.
Ghilherme Lobo gives a brilliant performance as Leo, and while it’s great that his character’s blindness is almost incidental to his story, The Way He Looks wouldn’t work with a seeing protagonist. A visual representation of his parents’ concern, a dark world to be illuminated by his first love or simply a means to get two male teenagers past the touch barrier, Leo’s blindness becomes an enigmatic metaphor. But even as the barriers come falling down and he’s able to live a life somewhere near normal, the concept of blind sexuality remains haunting. Is sexuality rooted in vision, derived from the beauty found in the eye of the beholder? Or is Leo an outrider for blind love, simply seeing beyond (or not seeing) gender?
Perhaps the biggest problem with Daniel Ribeiro’s The Way He Looks is its lack of story – Ribeiro choosing to leave both Leonardo and Gabriel’s emotional journeys frustratingly underwritten. And while it’s a rare pleasure to find a gay film with a happy end for once, Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho shortchanges the pain and suffering that gets them there. As such, their final act of playground resistance – holding hands rather than Gabriel leading Leo by the arm – feels disappointingly hollow, accepted all too simplistically by the class bully as a just retort. But even while Daniel Ribeiro’s The Way He Looks leaves us emotionally in the dark, as a reflection on sexuality and identity it’s enjoyably illuminating.
The Way He Looks is released on 24th October 2014 in the UK