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The Way He Looks offers authentic coming-out story

Brazilian film opens Vancouver Queer Film Festival Aug 14

Ghilherme Lobo’s portrayal of Leo (left) in the Brazilian film The Way He Looks hits all the right notes. Credit: VQFF

While writer/director Daniel Ribeiro may not have created a cutting-edge addition to the queer coming-of-age genre with The Way He Looks, he has — due in large part to its uncomplicated nature and strong central characters — created a film that is almost impossible not to love.

Leonardo is a middle-class teenager in a São Paulo private high school. Blind since birth and an only child, he’s eager to experience any degree of independence, but his parents are loath to loosen the reins. His smart-talking BFF, Giovanna, guides him — quite literally — through his days. She dictates to him in class, takes him swimming, smacks down the single smartass who attempts to make Leo’s life hell, and unlocks the gate to his house. And carries a scorching torch for him that everyone sees. Except Leo.

When the requisite new kid shows up, all the girls — including Giovanna — are a-twitter. And Leo’s interest is piqued.

Ribeiro’s strength isn’t necessarily in his writing (while it’s difficult to judge a script heard in translation, The Way He Looks feels a bit like an after-school special). Where he shines is in casting. The three characters at the heart of the story are remarkable in their simplicity and truth.

Ghilherme Lobo portrays Leo’s struggle toward manhood with a light touch and fascinating physical agility — one moment his face and demeanour project the frustration and intensity of an awkwardly unfurling young man. In the next, he’s slipped back into boyish guilelessness, all the while maintaining an uncanny portrayal of sightlessness that has me convinced of its authenticity.

Tess Amorim’s Giovanna is note-perfect. She’s not the prettiest girl at school and knows it, but she also knows her strength. She’s the fiercely loyal friend we all needed in high school — and maybe neglected. Perhaps you’ve experienced unrequited love, but imagine staring directly into the face of its source and being so completely unseen. She nails it.

Fabio Audi, as Gabriel, has the difficult task of being the third in the triangle. He gets less screen time, but his unassuming, dorky charm grounds him solidly as the apex of dual affections.

The tension for all three lies in the near impossible task of expressing one’s affection when that expression may end in disaster. And, particularly in Leo’s case, when one is discovering that affection — and its attendant desire — for the very first time.

The linear candour of the film unspools over a sweet and eclectic soundtrack that includes Belle and Sebastian, Brazilian singer/songwriter Tatá Aeroplano, Arvo Pärt, Bach, Brahms and Bowie.

The story is aimed at a young audience and poses an interesting question in an age of visual over-stimulation and the sexualization of younger and younger people: when sight is removed, what senses determine and guide desire? While not answering this specifically, The Way He Looks ultimately offers the significant prospect of choosing a life lived openly, with joy and hope.