Ghilherme Lobo in "The Way He Looks." Photo Credit: Obscured Pictures.

Ghilherme Lobo in “The Way He Looks.” Photo Credit: Obscured Pictures.

In The Way He Looks, Brazilian filmmaker Daniel Ribeiro’s new coming of age tale, Leo (Ghilherme Lobo) is blind but that’s the only thing that sets him apart. The way he looks is, frankly, adorable but if you consider the film’s title as a double entendre, the way Leo “sees” the world is through all his other senses and they are in fine working order. He’s also gay but that’s of little consequence. In Ribeiro’s view of things, life, love and the pursuit of happiness are all within easy reach.

It’s a simple enough story — an adolescent boy (in a remarkably sensitive portrayal by Lobo) yearning for independence from an overprotective mother and awakening to the sexual stirrings of first passion is a universal one. In Leo’s case, precisely because of his blindness, his struggles for a normal life are more pronounced — but only slightly. Tess Amorim as Giovana, his best friend, tags along with as much nonchalance as a Seeing Eye dog, more like a solicitous older sister than a best buddy of choice. It’s only when Gabriel (Fabio Audi), as a new kid in town, befriends Leo and invites him to the movies without Giovana that she grows jealous.

Giovana’s resentment is not that hard to understand. In her eyes, Gabriel with his black curly locks and instant non-judgmental charm with Leo is a nascent threat, not to mention whatever physical draw she may feel for this new upstart. His ready patience to be the new eyes for the boy, explaining everything from the robots on the movie house screen to a late night eclipse of the moon is quickly usurping her place. She sees her own role in Leo’s life as indispensable. Actress Tess Amorim does her best to show her frustration over the whole business, though much of her own sullenness and confusion is lost on Leo. But the film is not really about Giovana. If anything, she serves as a back story for the life Leo has had up to Gabriel’s entrance on the scene.

From this point forward, Leo’s own senses seem to vibrate, becoming charged with possibility. To the young actor’s credit, he moves with the learned ease of someone who has never known anything other than blindness. Ribeiro has not only managed to achieve an amazing performance out of Lobo, but has also struck a delicate balance here, allowing Leo’s character to experience a new sensual life in some very interesting ways. A bathroom sequence where his lips tentatively touch the shower stall glass reads as a perfect anticipatory gesture of the real kiss to come. When Gabe accidentally leaves his sweatshirt behind in Leo’s room, the blind boy’s touch and smell of this one piece of clothing speaks volumes.

I won’t give away how the director reveals Gabriel’s own sexual awakening on a school camping trip with Leo, but suffice it to say that he handles it with a delicacy and tenderness seldom seen in gay films. There is nothing prurient here. Ribeiro finds instead an ingenuousness and honesty that can only happen in the hands of someone who understands adolescence, whatever the sexual proclivities of his characters may be.

There are other characters in Ribeiro’s script to flesh out the landscape of Leo’s world, but they remain largely peripheral. Both mother and father are almost one-dimensional in their kindly concern for their child’s comings and goings — whatever incipient frustrations they must feel never blossom into real confrontation. Only the grandmother seems wise enough to let well enough alone. We sense she has had enough experience to know that sometimes loosening the ties that bind is not only advisable but necessary. The bullying of Leo by schoolmates is tame at best — if anything, the challenges of school life as presented almost strains credibility. Can they really be all this nice? Even when two girls on the sidelines suspect something more of Gabriel’s affection toward his new friend, it never erupts into the kind of contempt and brutishness we’ve come to suspect from callous teens.

Perhaps that’s just fine. This is Ribeiro’s universe as he sees it. It’s not Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino or any one of a number of talented film and TV directors working today who are quick to give us close-ups of human anguish whether we like it or not.

In a recent interview with The Gay UK, Ribeiro was very forthcoming about what he wanted for his leading character. “I wanted to focus on the universality of Leo’s situation of him accepting who he was and falling in love for the first time. I wanted to create a film where being gay wasn’t an issue and where Leo didn’t question his sexuality at all.” He feels that a straight person never has to question a sexuality that is encouraged by everyone in their lives. But doesn’t Leo have a harsher reality outside his own rose-colored view to face?

According to Ribeiro, “the reality is that there are many more happy love stories ready to be told than there are about people just being gay bashed. I think it is very important for young people growing up who are constantly surrounded by a daily onslaught of bad news that they need to know that you can be both happy and gay.” The lighthearted soundtrack by Belle and Sebastian sustains this upbeat mood throughout the script. There is nothing to deter us from believing that these two appealing young men could successfully walk hand in hand into the sunset.

His belief in the power of positive thinking obviously helped this director when, in 2011 at the tender age of 29, he showed the short film I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone at a Cardiff film festival and won the prestigious Iris Prize for a LGBT short feature. He subsequently used the award funds as seed money to convert the film into a full-length version. Three years later, with the completion of The Way He Looks, he is happier than ever.

Evidently, a sizable number of filmgoers are ready for Ribeiro’s feel-good approach. To date, the film has been the winner of the FIPRESCI Prize and Teddy Award from the Berlin International Film Festival, a winner of the Audience Award from Outfest and the Audience Award Winner for Best Feature of NewFest. It has also just been selected as Brazil’s official submission for the Best Foreign Picture Oscar Nomination.

Love may be blind for Leo, but there seems to be nothing blind-sighted in Daniel Ribeiro’s future. One thing’s for certain — whether it’s far-sighted or near-sighted, we can all use a little dose of this director’s brand of vision.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

(“The Way He Looks” opened nationwide on Friday, November 7th. The film is in Portuguese with English subtitles.)

Video courtesy of Movie Trailers.

Featured image courtesy of Obscured Pictures.