I am so fucking sick of coming-of-age LGBTQ films where nobody is really evil, and all the tension is from coming out of the closet and getting your first boyfriend. I realize that this is a legitimate genre, and probably needs to be updated for every generation that comes of age, but…goddammit, I personally am so fucking sick of it. It’s my problem, and it’s not the fault of any specific movie, but if I never see another teenager struggle for their freedom while also coming out of the closet, I’ll be a happy happy gay man.
The Way He Looks takes the usual plot and adds in the complication of making our teenage hero, Leo, blind. This complication gives him overprotective parents who seek to protect him given his disability. Otherwise, it runs through the usual gay teenage tropes. Leo has a teenage female best friend, who kind of has an unrequited crush on him. There’s the new interloper best friend, with whom he is intended to fall in love. Of course, there are the bullies who make fun of him and call him gay before he even comes out. All of this fills him with a desire to escape the town he lives in. It’s all so…done.
That being said, The Way He Looks isn’t BAD so much as it is TIRED. If you’ve seen the usual coming-of-age stories, then The Way He Looks will hold no surprises. The best scenes have little to do with the plot and more to do with general growing up. There’s a touching moment where Leo is taught how to shave by his father. And, stay during the credits for a final scene as it is the best of the movie.
It’s also not that The Way He Looks is cheap or poorly constructed. Director Daniel Ribeiro gives the film that semi-soft, twee, limited-palette, limited focus dreamy look that so many indie movies have had in recent years. That aesthetic is fine. But, much like the tropes, the aesthetic is just so overdone. There have been so many movies that have that same mildly saccharine look, all about giving you the feels, that I’m just about over it.
The only problem with The Way He Looks is that it came out 3 years too late. The movie is not bad, if you’re wanting another gay teenage coming of age story minus any real rebellion. The worst thing that Leo does is sneak out at night to look at an eclipse. Or, maybe it’s drinking a whole bunch of vodka and then going swimming on a class camping trip. But, the rebellion in The Way He Looks isn’t really all that rebellious. The closest to an actual negative emotion you feel for any of the characters is frustration at their inability to communicate.
However, The Way He Looks has one interesting point of view: neither Leo nor his object of affection are really conflicted about their sexuality. Instead, they are more conflicted about peer acceptance. Much of the tension comes over whether each of them wants to risk queering their friendship for the risk of dating each other, rather than “I can’t REALLY be gay, can I?” and also rather than most of it coming from the bullies or the parents.
There is a new trope that I noticed in the coming-out movie where the kid doesn’t actually come out to his parents. In both this, and the 2014 Netherlands film Boys, the central figure comes out to maybe 2 friends, but never confronts his parents. There is no blessed acceptance, nor a fiery condemnation. That situation is never resolved in either film, creating the one new trope in modern gay film.
I’m also a curmudgeon. The Way He Looks won awards at the Berlin Film Festival, won audience awards at Outfest, SIFF, and SLGFF, and is Brazil’s official entry for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar. This is a crowd-pleasing movie that a lot of people really connected with. When I say that I found it tired and trite, I realize that I’m in the minority on this one.
If you want an easy going non-descript coming-of-age story out of Brazil with skinny boys who get naked once or twice, then you’ll probably love The Way He Looks. It’s probably the perfect film for cuddling with your boyfriend. But, if you’ve seen all of the coming of age stories and are looking for a new twist on the genre, or something that maybe even reflects how the youth of today actually looks at the world, then skip it.