Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo), the young hero of Brazilian filmmaker Daniel Ribeiro’s uneven debut, is blind. He doesn’t know for sure whether he’s gay, but he suspects it, because of his strong attraction to Gabriel (Fabio Audi), who kissed him at a party but has since dropped all contact.
Leonardo’s BFF Giovana (Tess Amorim) suspects something, too, and since she has never given up her unrequited romantic interest in Leonardo, she’s jealous and therefore also estranged.
So Leonardo is alone, sitting on a wall, miserable, as everyone boards a bus to go on a school outing. And in the distance Giovana is gazing at Leonardo with yearning and uncertainty, which goes undetected when she leaves the frame, in silence.
In “The Way He Looks,” Ribeiro has enough moments like this that viewers will be frustrated when he falls back on the familiar beats of a movie about coming out and coming of age. Leonardo’s parents, for example, overprotect him, and Leonardo’s petulant complaints about their helicoptering grow tiresome. The requisite bullies show up, making fun of Leonardo’s blindness and, later, as his friendship grows with Gabriel, taunting him for acting gay. But as schoolyard bullies go, these guys barely register.
More problematically, Ribeiro lacks a sense of dramatic construction, with the narrative stumbling about thoughtlessly, retracing the same ground over and over. Perhaps life is like that — it certainly is in the films of Xavier Dolan (“I Killed My Mother,” “Heartbeats”), who covers much of the same territory as Ribeiro. But you can believe that Dolan’s films are about life, and not the missteps of uncertain screenwriting.
As for the performances, only homely Giovana has heart and depth. The two boys lack chemistry, even in chemistry class, due in part to the trite dialogue, or at least as it is translated in subtitles. Leonardo’s most intense scene occurs when he is alone in bed wearing Gabriel’s sweat shirt, masturbating. Shades of “Brokeback Mountain.”
Which leaves the sometimes inspired image or editing choices to carry most of the film’s passion and poignancy. Like the spin-the-bottle game at a party in which the bullies tell the never-been-kissed Leonardo that he’s about to smooch with the prettiest girl in class, then hold up the hostess’s pug dog. Or the scene in which Gabriel takes Leonardo out late at night to “see” a lunar eclipse (Gabriel makes so many sight gaffes that you have to wonder if it’s intentional). Gabriel takes three stones and places Leonardo’s hand on them and arranges them to demonstrate the cosmic mechanics of the event. The earth, moon, and sun of the eclipse then become metaphors for the triangle of Leonardo, Gabriel, and Giovana. It might not be Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” but it is evidence that Ribeiro deserves a second look.