DIR/WRI: John Butler • PRO: Rebecca O’Flanagan, Robert Walpole • DOP: Cathal Watters • ED: John O’Connor • DES: Kathy Strachan • MUS: John McPhillips • CAST: Fionn O’Shea, Nicholas Galitzine, Andrew Scott
There’s something immediately repulsing about the homophobic remarks. Not simply by their frequency in Handsome Devil or their variations but by how authentic its usage reflects attitudes regarding sexuality and masculinity in many boys’ schools to this day. As the protagonist, Ned (Fionn O’Shea), explains in the beginning, gay means “bad, crap, different” and to be cast as such is a significant condemnation among peers. Despite whatever social and political progress has been made, the stigma of being gay still remains even if the kids don’t know what it means, and director John Butler illustrates this problem quite well in this touching comedy about two boys becoming the unlikeliest of friends.
Being a music lover, Ned has been bullied for being “gay” for as long as he can remember. Ostracized from his year for being the only boy to loathe rugby, he finds his own space reclusively in his dorm room. That is, until Conor (Nicholas Galitzine) moves in. A transfer student with a history of violence and a natural talent for rugby, Ned takes an instant disliking to the new guy, forming a makeshift Berlin Wall between himself and Conor.
However, Conor’s interest in music, coupled with the assistance of their English teacher (Andrew Scott) in a talent show, quickly breaks Ned down and the two become closer and closer as friends. But when Ned discovers Conor surreptitiously entering a gay bar, and Conor’s rugby team and coach (Moe Dunford) threaten to expose why he left his previous school, Conor is forced to repress his identity and his friendship to Ned in order to protect himself.
Admittedly, Handsome Devil doesn’t appear promising as it begins. The soundtrack, the voiceover narrative from Ned to lazily explain character motivation, and Andrew Scott’s Mr. Sherry emphatically asking students to “reveal to me who you are” has all the signs of a bland coming-of-age story for teens. John Butler, who previously directed and wrote The Stag, re-explores Irish masculinity here again but with the added twist of sexuality and its impact on male identity. For most of the film it works, thanks largely to a terrific cast who viably add dimensions to their characters and make the dramatic spots emotionally effective. Mr. Sherry’s brief glance aside as he assures Conor that “it gets better” fleshes out a character that until then was nothing more than a mentor figure for the protagonists.
While fewer laughs are to be had than Butler’s previous film, Handsome Devil succeeds in delivering a far more satisfying examination of masculinity than before, presenting an encouraging message for teenagers to not be bound by stereotype if it feels unnatural to them. The recurring tropes of teen flicks impede the story from feeling more than cliché, but there’s enough emotional resonance when necessary to give an enjoyable experience nevertheless. Whether it will have influence over its intended demographic is a different story altogether but the attempt to teach the ignorance of stigma is a commendable effort.
15A See IFCO for details
Handsome Devil is released 21st April 2017