I’m always wary when a really good short film get turned into a feature-length movie. It seemed a particular concern with The Way He Looks, as the original short that it’s based is so perfect and complete in its own right, that a 90 minute version could easily have either felt bloated or been so different from the original it betrayed its roots. However director Daniel Ribiero has managed the rare feat of taking everything that was great about the short and spun it out into a sweet, tender teen romance that’s a really great film.
Leo is a blind teenager who is in a mainstream school but has issues with some of the other kids. However he has his best friend Gi, with the two of them spending all their time together. Indeed it’s rather co-dependent set-up, with Gi enjoying that Leo needs and seems to rely on her, while Leo has the comfort of someone looking out for him. However he also yearns for independence, feeling that because he’s blind everyone around him is trying to control and prevent him from being his own person.
Things are shaken up by the arrival of Gabriel at the school, who befriends Gi & Leo. Gi doesn’t handle this intrusion into their tight little world very well, feeling that things such as Leo and Gabriel going to the cinema without her is evidence that he’s choosing the new guy over her, and that their close knit bond will disappear. While Leo has no desire to lose Gi, he can’t deny that’s he’s becoming increasingly attracted to Gabriel, but isn’t sure whether his new friend feels the same way.
The Way He Looks is a difficult film not to like. It’s the sort of movie where you don’t just enjoy the story but appreciate how much thought has gone into it. For example, as it’s centred around the experiences of a blind person, the film ensures that senses aren’t just part of the script, but infused into everything else too. As Leo walks along the street with his cane, the tapping noises are brought to the foreground to help bring us into his world of sound, while the often beautiful visuals highlight the textures of the world, which is about as close as film can get to touch.
However the core that keeps you pulled in is definitely the sweet story, which on the surface is quite simple but hides surprising depths. You can understand Leo’s yearning for independence, but you can also understand his mother and Gi’s desire to protect him, not just because of understandable worry, but that they still infantilise him a little because he has always needed help. Likewise, while Leo and Gabriel dance around their feelings for one another, the movie really feels for why neither says anything.
I was slightly worried that the movie would feel the need to lead up to something bigger and more extreme at the conclusion, but thankfully Ribeiro know that simplicity is often best, and by keeping things relatively low key it actually packs more of a punch than having the characters scream their emotions.
It’s not too surprising that The Way He Looks won numerous film festival awards, including the prestigious Golden Teddy for the best LGBT-themed movie at the Berlin International Film Festival. Indeed in a fair world it would have found more mainstream attention than it did, but it’s difficult to get international audiences to pay attention to Brazilian movies at the best of times, let alone one about possibly gay teenagers.
It is a shame though, as this is a great film, and yet more evidence that while the world of gay-themed cinema does produce its fair share of rubbish, there’s a lot of really good, thoughtful, moving work being made. It would be easy to dismiss this as yet another gay teen coming out movie, but that would be reductive and not that accurate, indeed while this is at least partly about the experience of being young and gay, like most of the better LGBT-themed cinema it knows there’s more to life than that.
I genuinely loved The Way He Looks, far more than I thought I would. I’ve been burned too many times after great short films were turned into disappointing movie, so I couldn’t help but have trepidation about this movie. However it didn’t take long for those fears to fall away when it revealed itself to be a tender movie where all the ingredients have come together to make a wondereful whole.
Overall Verdict: One of the best gay-themed teen romances ever, with a genuinely sweet story wrapped in the acting talent and directorial flare to take it above the ordinary.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac