The sweet and sunny Brazilian romance “The Way He Looks” is out writer/director Daniel Ribeiro’s feature-length version of his excellent 2010 short “Eu Não Quero Voltar Sozinho” (“I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone”). This expanded version, starring the same cast as the short, is one of those rare, happy cases where the feature film improves upon the short.
The film, which is Brazil’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film, opens Nov. 7 at Ritz Theaters.
In this engaging coming-of-age story, Leo (Ghilherme Lobo) is a blind teen whose BFF, Giovana (Tess Amorim), assists him in school and walks him home. When Gabriel (Fabio Audi) joins their class, he befriends Leo and Gi, as she’s called. When a class assignment forces the guys to work together, they quickly form an intimate bond, causing Gi to become jealous.
What makes “The Way He Looks” so magical is that Ribeiro chronicles how the two male teens fall in love. The teens never discuss their emotions, but their feelings are all tactile. When Gabriel plants a kiss on Leo, or the two friends shower together during an overnight class trip, the unspoken attraction hangs in the air.
Ribeiro met with PGN to talk about gay teens and “The Way He Looks.”
PGN: Why did you feel you needed to expand your short into a feature?
DR: When I thought about this blind character discovering that he was gay, I knew it had to be my first feature. Blindness provides a way to talk about sexuality because Leo had never seen a boy or a girl. His feelings were not based on anything he had seen; it was just how he felt — his other senses. I thought Leo was a character we’d never seen before, and this coming-of-age film would be a good first feature for me to represent who I am. I wanted to keep the same actors because they had a huge chemistry in the short.
PGN: There are many scenes involving tactile contact — the boys on the bike or Gabriel teaching Leo to dance …
DR: Sight is something that is very attached to sexuality. The big conflict for Leo is, does Gabriel like me or not? He can’t use his sight to get the clues.
PGN: In Latin culture it is very common for intimacy to develop between friends. Can you discuss the attitudes queer teens face in Brazil?
DR: In Brazil, men don’t kiss on the cheek. Brazil is almost conservative in that way. I wanted to establish that. If two boys are too intimate, people think they are gay. If you kiss a boy, you’re gay. You can hug, that’s OK; we express our emotions easily, but there are rules about being gay, a limit to what you can do, and what is considered too much.
PGN: Leo is very careful about expressing his emotions. Can you discuss how you constructed his character? He is different when he is at home with his family and when he is at school with his friends.
DR: I think we are all like that — adapting — especially someone [like Leo] who is bullied. In places where he has more power (at home), he can be strong. He is able to have a dialogue with his parents. I didn’t want him to be protected by anyone other than Gi and his mother.
PGN: Leo’s mother sees him as being very responsible. Do you think gay teens are more mature?
DR: I think a lot of young gay people mature really young because they have to deal with something huge in their lives and they have to do it by themselves. Nowadays, it’s easier for gay teens to be more open, but when I was a teenager, I went through a period where I couldn’t share everything I was feeling. I think a lot of gay people go through that, and they mature really fast and really young. I don’t have Leo question his sexuality, which I went through. I think gay kids shouldn’t have to go through this period of questioning who they are. You need some time to understand what you are feeling, but when you realize you’re gay, it should be OK.
PGN: What can you say about the shower scene?
DR: I think there has to be a shower scene in a gay film. In the short, we have the same concept where Leo changes in front of Gabe, and Gabe looks at him and realizes that he can look at Leo and Leo doesn’t realize Gabe is staring. Because they were older, I could do it with nudity, and it would be important for the characters. It’s a big deal for gay teens when they have to shower with other people. You can get an erection because your body can’t hide your sexuality.
PGN: Gi and Leo talk about their level of laziness. What is your level of laziness?
DR: It depends. Right now, it’s big. I’m trying to start a new film. It makes me lazy because it’s so hard. I have to think, What is the story I want to tell next? But when the films start, it flows and it’s exciting and my laziness goes to zero, because I just want to make the film.