Daniel Ribiero’s The Way He Looks dedicates itself not to closed-ended statements regarding blossoming sexuality, but rather the touches, smells, and glances that begin to constitute one’s sensual fortification during adolescence. By relegating his scope to the anxieties of Leo (Ghilherme Lobo), a blind teenager caught between the throes of parental protection and desire for sexual autonomy and identity, Ribiero places Leo’s gaze (or literal lack thereof) as something that must be attained through sensation, which roots itself in social interaction. These engagements form through Gi (Tess Amorim), Leo’s BFF, who’s equally motivated by a search for her first romantic relationship, and Gabriel (Fabio Audi), a new student who comes to be the Jules to Leo’s Jim, with Gi initially the girl of each boy’s innocuous affections.
Ribiero, however, displays little intent to simply recast François Truffaut’s love-triangle dynamics into the confines of school-daze clichés beyond these initial narrative similarities. He’s steadily less concerned with offering a scenario for simplistic resolution than deemphasizing the film’s conventional plot points as a means to reorient Leo’s bodily exploration. Ribiero lingers within a scene of Leo in the shower, as he gently kisses the steamy glass pane, letting his lips delicately touch the surface. When Gabriel takes Leo to the movies, Ribiero frames Gabriel’s mouth in close-up as he dictates narrative events, with Leo shuddering at the movie’s bracing sound effects. It’s a key point in the film’s consistently revisionist trajectory, which calls attention to the impossibility of Leo’s gaze, since the shot of Gabriel’s mouth is, spatially speaking, what would typically represent a reverse shot.
What progressively mounts tension isn’t a question of hook-ups and melodramatic epiphanies, but the film’s understanding of Leo’s gradually realized homosexuality as being inextricable from its central metaphor of compromised vision. However, Ribiero isn’t merely correlating blindness with homosexual absence, since Gabriel, who possesses the capacity for sight, is given the film’s best scene, as he scans Leo’s naked body while showering. The scene recalls Leo’s mimed shower kiss, but this time the situation is live. Gabriel is conflicted about his inclinations, but Ribiero makes clear that these hesitations come purely from the vantage point of a privileged gaze, such that without Leo’s returned, affectionate look, Gabriel acknowledges his own voyeur status.
As Gi gradually recedes from the film’s immediate concerns, The Way He Looks confronts the dynamic implications of its title head-on. The film is concerned with receiving the gaze as an object of desire, but also how one looks. In this regard, Ribiero wisely avoids the literalness of a film like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by rooting his visual interrogations into the vulnerabilities of his characters, not formal tics. Moreover, once Leo and Gabriel actualize their desire, there are stakes in a kiss that transcend simply an entrance for each of the boys into the more splendid pangs of their sexually entwined selves. Ribiero lingers once again on the interaction, with Leo’s touch of Gabriel’s lips as a mode of vision that liberates Leo’s sexuality. Instead of talking, as Leo has done for the film’s duration, he’s acting on his desire. When Leo finally cups Gabriel’s hand outside the school, to the dismay of an on-looking, perpetual bully, it’s Ribiero’s final, searing gesture of a demand for cinematic-as-social compassion.