About halfway through The Way He Looks there’s a jarring dream sequence, a nightmare in which blind teenager Leo jealously imagines his new friend Gabriel talking to his classmate Karina in the eerie glow of a bonfire. Their faces are half hidden in shadows, and an unreal light plays over them like the Halloween glow of torches cupped beneath chins. Their voices are strangely piercing whispers. It’s the first time we really “see” things from Leo’s perspective, the closest we come to an insight into the darkness from which he views the world. It’s an impressively edited, memorable sequence that manages to highlight the sense of frustrated unfairness that runs throughout this subtle, coming-of-age drama.
Set in a high school in Brazil, The Way He Looks deals with the lives of Leo (Ghilherme Lobo) and his best friend Giovana (Tess Amorim), whose friendship is drastically altered by the arrival of new classmate Gabriel (Fabio Audi). There’s the usual mixture of class bullies and overbearing parents, and – as if the complex relationships of post-puberty aren’t difficult enough – Leo must negotiate them while coming to terms with his own disability. Lobo – who himself is not blind – does an excellent job of authentically portraying his character’s frustration at not being able allowed to grow up with the same freedoms as his classmates. “It’s always dark for me,” he snaps at his worried mother after she berates him for coming home late one night, and his anger is entirely convincing.
From Leo’s slightly tense relationship with his parents to his burgeoning relationship with Gabriel, the script handles its characters brilliantly. The scenes in which Leo is alone with Gabriel are particularly well done – in once sequence Leo moves Gabriel’s hand across a textbook in an attempt to teach him Braille; in another, Gabriel coaxes Leo to dance to Belle and Sebastian’s “There’s Too Much Love” – and the two actors bring just enough warmth to the minimalist script to really help it come to life.
The film’s only real flaw is its neatness. The ending in particular is just that little bit too cosy to be entirely believable, as all the loose ends get tied up in a way that feels out of place with the realism of previous scenes. It’s not enough to spoil things, though, or detract too much from a love story that brings a fresh perspective to the coming-of-age genre.