Manoeuvring through the complicated field of puberty with its constant challenges is hard enough, and teenager Leonardo has to do this while blind. The Way He Looks, a Brazilian coming-of-age drama written, produced, and directed Daniel Ribeiro grapples with just that. Set in Sao Paulo, the film follows Leonardo, a high school student, in what seems to be an otherwise average school year, while simultaneously highlighting both the immense and subtle social complications that come with visual impairment. Leonardo’s friends often ask him insensitive questions without meaning to: “would you like to watch a movie?”, “have you ever seen an eclipse?”, and it is in these small exchanges where it is brought to the viewers’ attention most strikingly just how ableist we can be in pleasantries we would deem harmless.
Leonardo, along with his best friend and confidante Giovana, make a comfortable routine of walking home together every afternoon, but this habit is shaken with the introduction of new student Gabriel to the friendship. The contrasting sounds of indie-pop band Belle & Sebastian and Bach are set as the soundtrack to Leonardo, Giovana and Gabriel’s adolescent dilemmas, and with the absence of sight, the unifying nature of music is what sparks a riveting friendship between the two boys. While Leonardo comes to terms with the changes in his friendship with Giovana, he also deals with a changing relationship with his parents, growing increasingly irritated by his mother’s crippling protection of him.
Throughout the film, viewers are brought into Leonardo’s world through depleting the emphasis on sight and enhancing the other senses, namely sound. This is most effectively executed in Leonardo’s dream sequence, in which the bodies and faces of his friends are obscured by a bright light, and the only indication we have of who is speaking is the familiarity of their voices. Because of this, The Way He Looks is a cinematic experience like no other; as it forces the viewers explore the narrative through Leonardo, as opposed to positioning them in the marginal role of observer.
Thus, it is no surprise that The Way He Looks is Brazil’s entry into the nominations for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, as it tastelessly tries to recreate some of the subtleties of blindness, while still managing to take its audience on an all-encompassing sensational adventure without the pity party.