Stories of sexual awakening are abundant, but by creating a blind protagonist, writer/director Daniel Ribeiro has added a thought-provoking twist. Concerning desire, Ribeiro asks, in an interview, “Is it from all the external stimulations or is it from inside ourselves?” The Way He Looks is a teenage love quadrangle without a clear answer.
The film opens with a boy and a girl by the pool, pleasantly bored. Leo (Ghilherme Lobo) and Giovana (Tess Amorim) are platonic schoolmates, each waiting for something dramatic to change their lives. Enter Gabriel (Fabio Audi), a handsome new student. He becomes friends to both and problematically the object of their dueling affections, especially when Gabriel accompanies Leo back home after school, and not Giovana, as she has for years. Complicating things is the class coquette, Karina (Isabela Guasco), butting in and her persistent flirtation with Gabriel.
Two things elevate this simple story over formulaic teenage drama. One is Leo’s blindness, convincingly depicted by Lobo. His eyes are open windows to a deep interior life. One scene shows Leo in the shower, kissing the glass door with lonely longing. His off-center gaze makes the image more abstract and enhances the poetry of the moment.
The other engaging feature here is the way Ribeiro keeps Gabriel’s intentions a secret for some time. Is he simply friendly, a blank sexual slate onto which all others project their yearnings? Or is there a shyness, a shame, that hinders the full expression of his desire? Another shower scene, this one featuring both young men, contains Audi’s strongest acting. His eyes pass over Leo’s body and seem to flicker with something hidden.
Not as interesting, either in terms of the acting or writing, are the climactic emotional moments, which rest on lifeless dialogue and little chemistry. Ribeiro’s characters feel like bowdlerized teenagers, with the minor characters reduced to plot devices. There is a toothless bully, for instance, who shows up periodically to move things along. So the deeper questions about desire go unanswered, as no character’s motivation is developed into anything much deeper than hormones.
Yet Ribeiro has succeeded in creating a world suffused with muted colors, the institutional grays and greens of public schools, which reflect the suppressed feelings of the teens. At times the sun-kissed photography looks like an advertisement for Instagram filters, but even that seems fitting for a story about adolescents.
The Way He Looks is a slow-moving story with some originality and some clichés. Its strength comes from the youth of its stars, who are more eloquent than the words they speak.