Handsome Devil: beautifully vulnerable in its sensitivity

If the success of Fleabag is anything to go by, Andrew Scott playing sexy Irish anything is guaranteed to be a hit. Before he was a sexy Irish priest in that hit TV show (that’s hit TV show, Nina), he was a sexy, Irish and even on-the-cusp-of-homoerotic teacher in Handsome Devil.

Top Tip: Try not to get distracted by Andrew Scott’s beauty. Or his seductive Irish accent. Or his brooding eyes. What were we talking about?

Handsome Devil (John Butler, 2016) rotates around the story of self-defined outcast Ned, played by Fionn O’Shea, who attends a rugby-obsessed boarding school in Ireland. He is put in a dorm-room with new kid turned lead rugby player Conor, played by Nicholas Galitzine, and the friendship they develop is strained by their different social statuses within the school hierarchy.

The strength of this film lies in its principal diversion from the narrative we see so often in gay cinema; that is, a narrative of young boys discovering their gayness through romance. I didn’t realise until after seeing the film how rare it is to see a gay film, particularly one about teenagers, that doesn’t revolve around a romantic storyline. And it’s very refreshing to see that. Many queer people, including myself, don’t discover their identities through others, but through themselves, and it’s great to see that narrative represented.

In another bold step outside gay movie tropes, this story isn’t about the main character’s coming-out. Despite the incessant verbal abuse he receives, Ned is remarkably open about his gay identity — in a particularly heart-wrenching moment the lead bully rips up a poster he has up of two boys kissing. [Sidenote: I wish I had the balls to have one of those on my wall at 16.] There are coming out stories involved in the plot, but these are far from the focus. And — not to be too specific so we can avoid spoilers — the gay characters are wonderfully diverse. Not in terms of race, gender or sexuality — pretty much every character is a cis white gay man, read of that what you will — but at least in terms of experience. They all have their own complex journeys, and none of them fit easily into gay tropes or stereotypes. And they all learn from each other. We see coming out as a complex process that is far from a perfect solution to our character’s problems, but rather a simple step in their respective journeys.

Biggest Gay Mood: running away to sulk on a boat instead of playing rugby
[Other options for this week include: hearing “can I ask you a question?” and already knowing what the question will be; and hating your PE teacher]

John Butler, as a gay movie writer himself, isn’t afraid to explore the darker sides of gay life under homophobia (which is, as expected, omnipresent, from the schoolboy bullying to the headmaster’s outdated assumptions). The film shows how outside oppression can lead to the gay community becoming self-destructive: for example, a reluctance to let other people in for fear of rejection. Fear of exposure is used as a powerful plot device and character motive, causing trauma and conflict. And yet, Butler works his way through this delicate material with a sensitivity and an authenticity that is surely aided by his own gay life experience.

The sensitivity of Butler is brought home by outstanding performances from the two lead actors. And I’d almost forgotten how you needed to be gay to have feelings in the 90s: fear of being outed is almost surpassed by a group fear of being perceived as gay or femme – the schoolboys even made cheerleading masc. The awkward teenage boy angst is executed well with superb comic timing. As the school’s star essayist, Ned narrates the film, giving the viewer a less inhibited insight into his character; almost how he’d be if he could exist outside of his oppressive boarding school environment.

Britney Line Time: Sometimes I run, sometimes I hide, sometimes I’m scared

The schoolboys’ aversion towards emotional intelligence is only encouraged by the increasingly repulsive PE teacher. He does give us some good moments: a straight person trying to be politically correct and not being able to say the word ‘gay’ is always hilarious. Plus he really drives home the whole High School Musical- and Glee-esque ‘you have to choose between music and sports’ storyline (spoiler alert: you don’t!) Altogether, he definitely doesn’t deserve a character arc, but gets one anyway. How gracious.

There are many great details to Handsome Devil that only emerge in second or third viewings; this way, its brilliance can be further revealed, layer by layer. For example: the first time it is obvious that the barrier that Ned constructs down the center of his shared dorm-room, and its subsequent dismantling, is representative of the barriers queer people put up against strangers to protect themselves. However, only on rewatching the film did I consider that the split screen visuals shown later, depicting Ned and Conor in their differing occupations, could be a continuation of this same motif around barriers. Hell, at one point a song lyric mentions the number 21 at the same time as a scoreboard changes its score to 21. Small details like these celebrate the intricacies in the art of filmmaking. 

Soundtrack Standout: It’s Yours, David Kitt

Circling back to the sexy Irish teacher, we can finish this review with the advice Mr Sherry angrily imparts on Ned after realising that he plagiarised the lyrics to The Undertones’ My Perfect Cousin  in his essay: ‘Never speak in a borrowed voice’. And I think it’s clear that, in my opinion, in its diversions from gay teenage movie narratives and tropes, as well as its all-round sensitivity and willingness to be vulnerable, Handsome Devil is in no danger of doing that.

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