The Way He Looks is one of those films that you want to rush out and tell your friends about after seeing, as you might a marvelous six-table restaurant you discovered in a part of town that few venture to visit. It’s not great art, although it did garner the Fipresci prize for best feature film in the Panorama (and a Teddy for the best LGBT-themed film) at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival. It won’t change your life or the way you see the world. That said, this enchanting movie of young romance will probably leave you feeling pretty good.
Brazilian director Daniel Ribeiro’s first feature film tells the story of the friendship and budding love between two teenage boys who meet when Gabriel (Fabio Audi), the newcomer to town, enters his new classroom in a middle-class Sao Paolo suburban school and is assigned to sit next to a blind student, Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo).
The Way He Looks is less a coming out story than a tale of coming of age. In a refreshing re-writing of sexual awakening, the two 16-year-olds seem much at ease with their sexuality. The anxiety that ripples through the film as they become aware of their attraction to each other is the same that haunts every young person who falls in love—why doesn’t he or she call, am I being too forward, have I said the wrong things?
Not surprisingly, the notion of seeing and being seen reoccurs throughout the film. Gabriel takes his friend to a park to “see” an eclipse, and describes for him the movement of the sun and moon, and the magical darkness that sets in. He is Leonardo’s narrator at the cinema, and guide at a field trip to a lake. In a telling scene, we see the boys alone in the locker room shower after gym (Leonardo confides to Gabriel that he’s uncomfortable showering with the other boys). Gabriel guides him to a shower head and hands him a bar of soap, and then retreats a few steps, watching as his friend slowly drops his shorts and begins soaping his back. His gaze fixes on his friend’s buttocks until he glances down at his crotch and quickly grabs a towel to cover himself.
The beloved’s gaze is never far away. It stands behind us as we look into the mirror after the morning shower, and seeps into our thoughts throughout the day. Do I please him? It is a question that Leonardo puts to his best friend Giovana, who is as much in love with him as he is with Gabriel. “Am I attractive?” he asks. The irony of the question, posed by such an endearing, handsome teenager, is wrenching.
Leonardo has no “objective” standards against which to compare himself. For him, there is no golden mean of symmetry and proportion that describes the faces of the beautiful we see in art and advertisement. Yes, there are qualities of the beloved’s voice that embody a broader sense of the other’s beauty, the warmth of timbre and attentiveness that suggest desire. And then there is touch. When finally the two young boys kiss, Leonardo’s fingers gently trace the contours of Gabriel’s face to finally see his lover. Of his own beauty, however, he remains unaware. His blindness is a poignant metaphor for the sightlessness of the young lover. Who among us when first in love, save for the few graced by nature with brilliant beauty (and not even all of those), have not asked themselves the same question? How do l look?
None of the boys’ questions, however, have to do with being gay. That Leonardo and Gabriel are comfortable with their sexuality from the start is part of what makes the film remarkable, given that the struggle to self-acceptance has been a recurrent motif in films about gay youth to date, including such gems as Get Real and Beautiful Thing.
Not surprisingly. Coming out is one of the most defining experiences gay men and women undergo. Whether we suppress or embrace our sexuality, whether we tell all or no one, our desire—and the ever sharpening and ultimately undeniable awareness of our differentness that it engenders—remains an incontrovertible fact of our existence. It cannot but be acknowledged, even if it is not dealt with. Even when the journey from troubled innocence to the community of the initiated is short and relatively free of angst and self-doubt—as Leonardo and Gabriel’s seems to be—it is one we all make, and one made, at least in the beginning, on our own, a rite of passage without guide or catechism. And if our sexual awakening is rooted in an acute sense of not belonging, or perhaps more tellingly, of no longer belonging, we, unlike other initiates, do not yet know much if anything of the community which we will become part of.
Leonardo and Gabriel’s story, however, is not a struggle for self-acceptance but the longing for and pursuit of their first kiss. When and how they have come out to themselves is a backstory the film declines to investigate but instead takes as a given. A simple matter of fact. While the film arguably underplays the real-world difficulties of gay adolescence and blindness both, it is a lyric tribute to what a better world might look like, and what hopefully for some gay teenagers growing up today, already is.