BERLIN – When a blind teenager meets the new boy in his class it’s love at first sight in all ways — except literally — in The Way He Looks (Hoje eu quero voltar sozinho), the sweet and beautifully observed feature debut of Brazilian writer-director Daniel Ribeiro.
The film’s a feature-length version of the director’s award-winning, 17-minute short film from 2010, with the same actors back on board again here, though their characters are now slightly older teenagers. Ribeiro has impressively fleshed out the material into a full narrative, with not only added conflict and a convincing gallery of supporting characters but also an entirely new focus on the quest for independence of the blind lead (the shift is more obvious in the films’ Portuguese titles, as the short is called I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone, while the feature’s title literally translates as Today I Want to Go Back Alone).
A shoo-in for some serious love from queer film festivals and distributors, this title should also prove popular at festivals more generally aimed at teenagers or uncomplicated, narrative-driven foreign films.
Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo) has been blind since he was born, so he has never even seen the face of his devoted best friend, Giovana (Tess Amorim), who walks him home from their Sao Paulo school every day. They sit next to each other in class, where Leo uses a braille typewriter to take notes. Their familiar and safe routine is upset when a curly-haired cutie, Gabriel (Fabio Audi), joins their class and becomes friendly with Leo, while Giovana wonders whether he could be romantically interested in her.
Though they must be 16 or 17, both Leo and Giovana live in a sheltered suburban environment that’s almost too innocent to be true, as neither has ever even kissed anyone. To make matters worse, Giovana’s clearly smitten with her handsome childhood friend, but she’s shy and there is no way Leonardo can pick up on any visual clues. Ribeiro’s command of tone is key in making this setup believable, focusing on the innate goodness of his young characters before slowly allowing them the space to rebel as they try to assert themselves and leave their protective childhood cocoon behind.
Indeed, Giovana is extremely protective of Leonardo, though there might also be some jealousy involved when she sees Gabriel absorb part of her duties and potentially be the object of her friend’s budding amorous feelings. Leo’s parents are possibly even more protective than Gio, as they don’t even like their teenage son to walk home unaccompanied or stay home alone, much less go on a school trip or move abroad for a high-school exchange program.
Ribeiro makes the protectiveness of the characters around Leonardo, rather than Leo’s potential coming out, the motor of the drama, with both Leo’s mother (Lucia Romano) and father (Eucir de Souza), getting a couple of well-written exchanges in which they discuss their parental doubts and fears with their only child. It’s clear from these well-observed scenes that the parents are of course worried about the safety and well-being of their special-needs son, but they are also at least a little bit guilty of using his blindness as an excuse to avoid what is truly scary for any parent: letting their son be his own man.
But it is independence that Leo’s after, which also means making his own choices about whom he loves. His choice of partner, Gabriel, feels entirely natural and Ribeiro movingly shows the boy’s growing affection for his classmate through the heightened other senses of Leonardo, such as touch and smell. Gabriel isn’t sure initially how to react and a game of spin-the-bottle at a party at the house of the class bimbo (Isabela Guasco) ends in a cascade of embarrassing moments for Giovana, Leo and Gabriel.
A class trip in the film’s third act feels somewhat protracted and the resulting shower scene, after an afternoon at a countryside pool, feels too much like a convenient queer film cliché (the characters never seemed to shower when they went to the pool at Giovana’s in the city earlier in the film, when the boys’ rapport was just friendly). Generally, however, Ribeiro’s screenplay, which is marbled with moments of humor as well as emotion, feels extremely well-tuned into the conflicted emotional lives of his adolescent characters, who often retreat into the safety of their childhood comfort zone after every exciting, but also scary, excursion into the adult unknown. Ribeiro also weaves in several lovely audio and visual leitmotifs, including the contrasting music tastes of the budding couple and Leo’s seemingly impossible dream to simply bike down the lanes of Sao Paulo.
Lobo is mesmerizing as Leonardo and, compared to the short, he’s offered a much larger range of emotions to play here, suggesting Leonardo will one day make a fine and well-adjusted young man once his occasional outbursts about wanting to be treated like any other kid will have finally worn those around him down. Though not blind himself, the actor’s gait beautifully conveys that all of his character’s other senses are constantly wide-awake to compensate for his lack of sight.
Audi and Amorim also turn their characters into full-bodied human beings, with Audi bringing a natural affability to Gabriel that makes it clear that even a blind boy would totally fall for him, while Amorim adds a fragility to Giovana that ensures that her third-wheel fate is quietly heartbreaking.
The film’s technical standouts are the sound work and Olivia Helena Sanches’ telling production design, while cinematographer Pierre De Kerchove bathes the proceedings in a soft milky light.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Production company: Lacuna Filmes
Cast: Ghilherme Lobo, Fabio Audi, Tess Amorim, Lucia Romano, Eucir de Souza, Selma Egrei
Writer-Director: Daniel Ribeiro
Producers: Daniel Ribeiro, Diana Almeida
Director of photography: Pierre De Kerchove
Production designer: Olivia Helena Sanches
Costume designer: Carla Boregas
Editor: Christian Chinen
Sales: Films Boutique
No rating, 96 minutes