Handsome Devil became a bit of a fave at film festivals, winning multiple awards at the likes of FilmOut San Diego and the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. You can see why, as it’s a sweet film, which does a good job of capturing the confusion, anger, cruelty and contradictions that are so often part of teenage life. Some of it will also be worryingly familiar to those who went to a rugby-mad boarding school.
Ned (Fionn O’Shea) feels like a total misfit. He’s constantly bullied at his Irish boarding school and called all manner of homophobic slurs. At first, he’s pleased that this year he’ll be getting a room to himself, but that’s disrupted when new boy Conor (Nicholas Galitzine) is assigned to share with him. Neither boy seems happy with the arrangement, with Ned certain that sharing a room with the boy who’s being held up as the school’s new rugby star will just mean he’ll get picked on even more.
However, the two find an unexpected alliance, helped by new English teacher, Mr. Sherry (Andrew Scott), who encourages them to explore new things, and realise that despite the school’s attitude, everything in the world isn’t about rugby. It turns out though, the reason Conor left his last school wasn’t just because of the rumoured fighting, it was because he’s gay (although in the closet). After Ned discovers this, their friendship could come crashing down.
In some respects, Handsome Devil is a slightly old-fashioned film, reminiscent of late 90s gay films such as Beautiful Thing and Get Real. Indeed, the whole thing has the aura of reminiscence, from the voiceover framing device, to the way it feels like someone looking back on their own school days with both fondness and sadness. It’s not a problem though, as what shines through is an earnestness, sense of humour, anger and belief that things can work out for the best.
That’s not to say it hides from painful things, and some will flinch at its heartfelt look at homophobic bullying and the difficulty of finding yourself and being true to your own voice as a young gay person.
And while I hope things have changed for the better in many places, any gay people who went to a rugby-mad private school will find a lot that feels familiar, even if it does slightly take it to the extreme. That includes the sensation that you’re in a place that considers you to be a lesser being if you don’t play rugby (and is oblivious to that fact), or the undercurrent of homophobia that’s tacitly encouraged by the school ‘ethos’. Anyone reading this who thinks boarding schools are hotbeds of teenage experimentation and homosexual lust, ought to know that often the truth is the complete opposite, partly because private schools know their reputation and so attempt to counteract it by allowing homophobia to flourish (although I sincerely hope things have improved since I was a teenager).
Fionn O’Shea and Nicholas Galitzine put in sweet performances as Ned and Conor, with Galitzine in particular successfully treading a fine line between stereotypical rugby jock and someone with more depth and interests than just throwing an ovoid ball around. O’Shea is also good, helped by a script that doesn’t just treat someone who get homophobically bullied as a passive victim. It’s one of the best things about the movie, that rather than just having Ned sitting in a corner crying, it shows how the attitudes towards him cause a spiky response, where his defences mean he’s constantly looking for how people are trying to get at him, even when they’re reaching out a hand of friendship. And it’s that anger and spikiness that eventually threatens to cause everything to implode.
Sherlock fans will also enjoy the presence of Andrew Scott as a new English teacher, who starts to shake things up at the school. He may also be keeping a few secrets, despite his protestations that his students should find their own voice and be true to themselves.
To be honest though, while the majority of the film is heartfelt and entertaining, it’s the ending that really helps to raise Handsome Devil’s game. The last 20 minutes are great, bringing tension and a nice sense of synthesis to all the issues the movie has been dealing with, suggesting that sometimes everyone needs to look at things a little differently to see what’s important and what’s they should really be standing up for.
Overall Verdict: A charming film that doesn’t shy away from the pain of homophobic bullying and the difficulties of youth, but does it with a sweetness and sense of humour that believes in the best.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac