The Way He Looks ★★★★

In the mood for an uplifting feel-good movie? Look no further than to "The Way He Looks". This Brazilian coming-of-age romantic drama film is so sweet and so emotionally honest that it will have the viewer thinking about it for a good while after the end credits have rolled.

The story is simple, no more complicated than it needs to be. Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo) and Giovana (Tess Amorim) are teenagers and best friends. Leonardo is blind from birth and has come to rely a lot on Giovana to get by in daily life. His parents (Lúcia Romano and Eucir de Souza) are a little overprotective, which clashes with Leonardo’s growing desire for independence. One day, a new student, Gabriel (Fabio Audi), arrives and gets the empty seat behind Leonardo in the classroom. Leonardo and Giovana soon become close friends with Gabriel. That Giovana develops romantic feelings for their new friend isn’t as surprising as the fact that Gabriel awakens the same kind of feelings in Leonardo too. The lives of the three friends are about to change forever.

Writer/director Daniel Ribeiro makes a fine feature-film debut with "The Way He Looks", which was preceded by his lovely short film "I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone" (2010). He was inspired to become a filmmaker after having watched the heartwarming "Beautiful Thing" (1996), and there are obvious thematic similarities between that movie and this one. Here, Ribeiro captures with pitch-perfect sensitivity the turbulent time that is adolescence. The process of coming of age is delicately depicted, with the movie deftly dealing with a young person’s wish for independence, which may be particularly complicated for a blind individual, and sexual discovery. There is an undeniable universality to most of the issues that the film addresses.

While the straightforward narrative allows the viewer to focus their attention on the characters and the little things, it comes at the cost of unpredictable plot developments. And because of its episodic structure, the film doesn’t flow smoothly at all times. On a few occasions, the main characters behave slightly too much like typical movie characters, but they are nonetheless virtually impossible not to like and care about.

"The Way He Looks" contains a number of great moments, from smiles and touches to whole scenes. One of the latter shows Leonardo being taught to shave by his understanding dad; it’s a quietly beautiful scene. Another memorable scene does a good job of conveying what it may be like for a blind person to dream. The final two scenes of the movie are full of pure hope and happiness, and the film consequently ends on a soaring note. And speaking of notes—Belle and Sebastian’s great song "There’s Too Much Love" fits perfectly with the positive vibes generated by the movie, and the song stuck in my mind.

To the extent possible (film is, after all, primarily a visual medium), the filmmakers show things from Leonardo’s perspective. An emphasis on sounds characterizes the movie. Furthermore, the camera—director of photography Pierre de Kerchove’s naturalistic cinematography solidly anchors the proceedings in the real world—almost always stays close to the characters to give the viewer a sense of the limitations of a blind person’s experiences of their surroundings.

The three lead actors are absolutely wonderful. Ghilherme Lobo delivers a terrific performance in the role of Leonardo, never anything but completely convincing as a blind teenager struggling to find his identity. As Gabriel, Fabio Audi brings a touching sense of innocence and insecurity to his character, and he and Lobo have excellent chemistry together. Tess Amorim’s unforced acting ensures that Giovana comes across as a kind and sympathetic character.

When the movie was over, I left the auditorium feeling elated. The odds that "The Way He Looks" will have the same effect on everyone else who sees it are low.