The Way I Saw “The Way He Looks” – a film review (spoiler alert)

This January/February I attended the Reelout queer film festival in Kingston, and genuinely loved it. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, and, unlike in regular movie theatres, there were introductory speeches and prize giveaways. My best experience was definitely the first screening, which doubled as a fancy-dress gala. Many people spoke, including members of the staff, the mother of the film’s star, and a representative of RBC (which sponsored the festival). The representative said something quite touching: that if the company were to replace its entire staff with duplicates of its best member, it would be a much worse company, as it needs diversity. It’s hard not to wonder whether this sentiment, and support in general, is genuine, or merely part of the company’s desired image (and pursuit of pink dollars). I like to be optimistic, though.

I’m going to be reviewing the 2014 film The Way He Looks, directed by Daniel Ribeiro. A self-representational film, the characters are Brazilian, just like the director; the film is also in Portuguese. Ghilherme Lobo plays the protagonist Leonardo, Tess Amorim his best friend Giovana, and Fabio Audi his love interest Gabriel. It is a coming-of-age drama, centered on Leonardo’s struggle with having parents who are overprotective about his blindness, as well as with his affection for new classmate Gabriel.

The scene I’m going to be discussing is near the middle of the film. Leo and Giovana sit in the school courtyard, talking and laughing until interrupted by Leo’s phone. The exchange agency has called to inform him that they have found an American agency specializing in blind kids. Giovana however reminds Leo that his parents will never let him go on exchange. Karina then interrupts, stating that she is looking for Gabriel. Spotting him, she leaves to flirt with him; Giovana calls her a slut.
While the day lighting and background noise of socializing make for a calm and cheerful tone, the protagonist undergoes a strong mood change. It’s in fact the interplay of various social issues that determine his mood, and that is why I chose this scene. I feel that it reflects the rest of the movie as a whole in terms of the social issues that it attempts to address.

Leo and Giovana’s laughter as a display of friendship is important. The heteronormative idea that men and women cannot be friends fuels platonic male-female relationships in film to often turn romantic, when existing at all. Although knowledge that Leo likes men would help heteronormative audiences accept his friendship with Giovana, it could be considered that Leo also likes women but simply not her.
As a side note, a clear statement of his and Gabriel’s sexual orientation in the film would have clarified which they are representing, and prevent audiences from viewing them as ‘straight with one exception’.

Leo’s phone conversation reminds the audience of his blindness, which I want to address. Specifically, a possible issue in the actor’s non-blindness. In her TED talk concerning disability studies, Maysoon Zayid stated, “Disability is as visual as race. If a wheelchair user can’t play Beyoncé, then Beyoncé can’t play a wheelchair user.”1 Leo’s uses a cane to walk – his disability is visual. It’s unfortunate that actors with disabilities are deprived of such roles (on top of able-bodied ones) in favour of able-bodied actors. Self-representation in the film only goes so far.

Despite this, I think Lobo did a good job. His subtly sad eyes and posture effectively communicate jealousy. However I like that the movie isn’t sad overall. The rare homosexual love stories in film are often tragic, and never get to share genres with heterosexual ones. A light coming of age story about two boys in love is refreshing. They realistically have to deal with bullies, but these are easily thwarted.

The scene is not the first example of Giovana’s Karina-oriented complaints. I was surprised, then, when Karina turned out to be sweet; Giovana’s hatred is clearly pure slut shaming. Perhaps the filmmakers were attempting to thwart the ‘flirts a lot = bad person’ idea by making Karina likeable, but if so, this did not come through. The stereotype should have been further addressed in order to be clearly subverted – and Karina’s storyline is too overshadowed by Leo’s. Therefore, the film seems to support misogynistic slut shaming.

Altogether, I really enjoyed the film. Leo and Gabriel have great chemistry, and the Brazilian setting was an escape from the current Canadian weather. The cinematography was well done, and cooperated with lighting, set design, and smooth editing for formal realism. The choices made sense considering that without formal realism, social realism is never as clear. As anticipated, it was refreshing to see South American nationality, disability, and queerness intersect within a protagonist; it’s rare to see one of these characteristics in mainstream film.
However, as a film wanting to push boundaries, it could have gone further. Although Portuguese-speaking Brazilians are typically ‘othered’ by North Americans, it’s mostly when they are non-white; yet no other race is represented. The film has queer characters, but all are cisgender (as far as the audience is made to know). The film did not pass the Bechdel test, either, and there could have been more class diversity.

Word Count: 871 (introduction 371; review 500)

1 Zayid, Maysoon. “I got 99 problems… palsy is just one.” TED. TEDWomen 2013. Dec. 2013. Lecture.

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4 thoughts on “The Way I Saw “The Way He Looks” – a film review (spoiler alert)

  1. Really great review! I gained a lot of new insight from reading your critique and enjoyed the fact that you didn’t only focus on the the message of the movie that was trying to gain attention towards homosexuality and also focused on other forms of oppression such as able-ism.. However I’m not exactly sure from your critique, but was the disabled character played by an able bodied character? Furthermore, I really enjoyed the fact that you touched upon the issue where male and female characters in movies are often not “just friends” because this seemed to come up in the film I watched as well. It almost is ridiculous that this never seems to be the case in movies and male and female characters that are meant to be best friends almost always end up engaging in sexual relations which is a very heteronormative idea. Loved reading your review! Thanks for sharing

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  2. Hi Snowflake123,
    I really like that you can be critical of societal norms and question the intentions of people (when wondering if the comment on diversity was only for pink dollars), but still enjoy the film and gala. When you start viewing things critically and become aware of prejudices in society, its easy to become cynical and jaded. My cousin once told me “becoming a feminist ruins everything”, but you counter that idea. Your optimism is inspiring!

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  3. Great review! I like the fact that you thought critically about RBC’s sponsorship of the festival, as many large companies have been proven to chase “pink dollars”. I found your use of key terms extremely insightful, and added, I think, a great deal of depth to your review. It seems like was both an engaging, fun, and informative. However, I was a little disappointed to learn that the casting of the film had some blatant shortcomings. Do you think some serious change should be implemented, so that fictional queer bodies are played by queer actors? For some reason, it just doesn’t sit well with me. You hit the nail on the head with the review. Good job!

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  4. I really appreciated how critical you were about aspects of the film, while still acknowledging what the film makers did well; too often discussion of social issues can be very one sided, where villains deserve to die and heroes are held too high. I like that you acknowledge that the film did some good things with self-representation, while still asking for more. I think your exploration of how slut shaming was featured in the film is a really good example of this, because you’re right when you say they should have done more, but it would be unfair to disregard the effort they made entirely. Overall, well done, and I’m glad you have a good time at the festival!

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