The landmines of adolescence — young love, self-discovery, irrational envy — are perplexingly difficult to navigate and all too easy to muck up in trite stereotyping and theatricality. Young Brazilian filmmaker Daniel Ribeiro is fully cognizant of the travails of teenhood, and though he sticks to the multitude of standard teen-flick tropes, he still forges his own path through sheer self-awareness and sincerity in his film, “The Way He Looks.”
With his debut feature-length, he creates a disarmingly sentimental LGBT coming-of-age film with winsomely affable protagonists and an earnestness rarely witnessed among modern romances.
Brazil’s entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and an expansion of the much-buzzed-about short film “I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone,” “The Way He Looks” and its YouTube-targeted short share the same premise: Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo), a blind high-school student travels through the tightrope act of teenagedom with his best friend and trusted protector Giovana (Tess Amorim) by his side when Gabriel (Fabio Audi), an impossibly charming, doe-eyed newcomer, ingratiates himself into the duo. As the boys’ relationship blooms, Giovana, whose lifelong dynamic with her sightless companion has always entailed an element of romantic infatuation, begins resenting the two sweethearts, both oblivious to the girl’s anguish and their mutual infatuation.
“The Way He Looks” fares wonderfully when Ribeiro delves deeper into the tiny fragments of Leo’s purview. We witness flickers of his introspective disposition as he quietly longs for Gabriel’s affection: pressing his lips on the shower door, wearing Gabriel’s sweater on a particularly restless night and most revealingly, a dream sequence in which he witnesses his crush canoodling with Karina, the so-called “skank” of the class.
These seemingly minute scenes of reflection best capture the film’s spirit. Leonardo’s ruminations are genuine, profound and sometimes silly, but the essence of the teenage years is built upon a juxtaposition of the three — an insight Ribeiro grasps brilliantly throughout the film.
What the full-length film lacks compared with its condensed equivalent is the thrill of witnessing a whirlwind romance: Stolen glances and flirtatious gestures are much more effective over the course of 20 minutes than over a span of two hours.
“The Way He Looks,” however, more than accommodates for this discrepancy with the more thoroughly fleshed-out plotlines. New tensions arise between Leo and his omnipresent bullies, whose incessant teasing eventually culminates into the most ruthless of the cliched teen party tricks: the dreadful blind dog-kissing scene. Their cruelty is not suspended in disbelief, thankfully, which further adds to the film’s realism: The rest of the students revile the bullies’ oafishness.
Ultimately, the strength of “The Way He Looks” lies within its beautifully rendered, sincerely affecting interpersonal exchanges. Leo’s protective support system, though cloying at times, ensures that his well-being and contentment are unhampered by his disability. Leo’s father guides his leaozinho’s, or little lion’s, hand as he teaches his son how to shave and as he supports his son’s international flights of fancy.
In an unbearably twee scene, Gabriel documents the events of a gaudy B-movie to Leo in a movie theater, all the while getting shushed by the rest of the audience. It’s cutesy — unabashedly so — and the film is all the better for relishing in it.
“There’s Too Much Love,” a deep cut from Scottish chamber pop stalwarts Belle and Sebastian, loops throughout the film’s pivotal acts in Leo and Gabriel’s fledgling romance — an unabashedly adorable bedroom dance sequence between the young lovebirds, a classwide party in which the proverbial spotlight is momentarily on the couple and the heart-melting, wholly expected climax of the film.
“Underneath, I am the same as you,” goes the infectiously toe-tapping tune — a sentiment that captures the remarkable universality that the film has achieved with aplomb. “The Way He Looks” is timeless without being overtly traditional, sweet without being overly saccharine and for both LGBT and straight audiences, a true delight to witness.
“The Way He Looks” opens Friday at Shattuck Cinemas.