From John Carney’s latest sensation Sing Street (2016) to Simon Fitzmaurice’s underrated debut My Name Is Emily (2015), Irish cinema continues to offer inspirational coming of age stories over the past couple of years. It may be just a coincidence but it could also be a more or less subconscious way for both established filmmakers and fresh talent to cope with such difficult times. After all, what’s more hopeful than youth?
With Handsome Devil, writer/director John Butler, reprises the poignant reflection on the meaning of masculinity he had explored in his fun 2013 debut The Stag (aka The Bachelor Party) but this time he takes the diatribe back to high school – a rugby-obsessed, all-boys boarding school to be precise – and by his own admission infuses the story with inevitable autobiographical references.
Ned – our protagonist – played with refreshing honesty by Fionn O’Shea, is the typical outsider whose life is made a living hell by his peers. A skinny, nerdy-looking lad who loves obscure music but hasn’t yet figured out himself, he is pegged for the school’s gay boy and constantly harassed by Weasel (Ruairi O’Connor), one of the rugby team’s arrogant jocks. Not only Ned doesn’t play rugby, he simply couldn’t care less about sports or the school team, which seems to be everyone’s priority, including the headmaster’s. It’s not hard to imagine his reaction then, upon finding out that his roommate for the new academic year is Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), the new kid on the block, who is also the kind of star-athlete the rugby team has been waiting for in order to seriously compete for the title.
Despite the bullying is focused on his supposedly ambiguous sexual identity, it looks like Ned’s issues actually stem from a more basic need to define his true self on a well rounded scale. He has artistic inclinations yet he plagiarizes essays, using lyrics from his favourite obscure songs and he gets away with it. He owns a guitar just because he likes to hold it and look cool but he can’t play it, aside from one chord. So, just like the new roommate challenges his social status, the new English teacher, Mr. Sherry (Andrew Scott), immediately calls the boy’s bullshit and challenges him to find his voice: “when you spend your life trying to be someone you are not, who is going to be you?”
Conor absorbs those words as well. On paper he and Ned are very different but deep down they are more similar than they would possibly imagine. Despite the innate talent for rugby, Conor possesses an artistic vein too and once the boys get past their initial hostility, they strike up a friendship, bonding over the common love for music, with the complicity of Mr. Sherry encouraging them to participate to a talent show.
Mr. Sherry’s inspirational teaching and life lessons a la Dead Poets Society obviously have a pivotal role in the boys’ enlightenment. Andrew Scott brings his usual charm and charisma to the role but also a genuine dose of humour that perfectly balances out the somber moments. The young actors’ great chemistry makes their relationship believable and relatable rather than being a teen soap rendition. Albeit based on a premise we’ve seen many times before, the script is genuine about what being a confused teenager truly feels like, serving the cast’s talent impeccably.
It’s interesting how certain social dynamics amongst the boys are mirrored in the adult world. Pascal (Moe Dunford), the rugby team’s strict manager doesn’t appreciate his new star player getting distracted by music and as the team keeps winning because of Conor, the man’s hard-ass attitude only fuels the other boys’ overblown machismo which results in Weasel’s continuous abuse of poor Ned. It’s in facing such obstacles that the boys’ newly formed friendship will be tested and the boys will have to work out who they really are once and for all.
Getting any deeper into plot mechanisms would only do a huge disservice to the enjoyment of this beautiful little film. The LGBTQ themes are gracefully interwoven in the story but they are not the sole focus and Butler has highlighted how he wanted to capture the multifaceted nature of growing up. It’s a period of our lives when everything is experienced intensely on an emotional level. We are prone to mood swings and to lots of insecurity and humiliation. Truth is, though, all of that drama doesn’t necessarily play out as heavy as it looks. There is room for humour and Butler does a marvelous job in order to accomplish such a delicate tonal balance. Yet, when he needs to pack an emotional punch, the Irish filmmaker knows which chords to strike (pun intended), as the climactic music montage to the notes of Rufus Wainwright’s heart-wrenching Go Ahead is cinematic perfection.
More than anything, Handsome Devil is an LGBTQ-themed film that achieves a rather important goal for queer cinema. It inches a step closer towards the emotional power of a story that feels universal rather than niche and can be appreciated by a wider audience without ever losing authenticity. If anything, the character/s who are actually revealed to be gay couldn’t be any more refreshingly portrayed by both the filmmaker and the actors in question.