Glasgow Film Festival 2017 began with the glorious, heart-warming Handsome Devil courtesy of John Butler. At once a breezy comedy and tense, poignant drama, Handsome Devil introduces orange-haired musical romantic Ned (the excellent Fionn O’Shea), who is forced to attend a prestigious and archaic boarding school when his father moves to Dubai and must navigate day-to-day life in an institution in which rugby is all.
His gentler nature, creativity and ambiguous sexuality render him an easy target for his peers’ homophobic slurs. Enter Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), a troubled, broody rugby player kicked out of his last schools for fighting, with whom Ned builds an unconventional friendship that has the power to make huge waves throughout the school.
Delivering another scene-stealing performance is Andrew Scott, playing the boys’ inspirational English teacher. Scott handles the role with sensitivity, avoiding the Dead Poet Society-style teacher one would expect in favour of a more realistic, pragmatic closeted gay man concerned for the welfare of his pupils. One scene in which he attempts to reassure Conor that life will improve even very basically once he leaves school and begins his life as a gay man is especially poignant.
A generation for whom “It gets better” was a mantra reverberating around emotional coming out videos of YouTube may struggle to accept Sherry’s words, unlike those who may have received such brutally practical advice themselves and see the reluctant merit in them. Another stellar and heart-breaking performance from Scott.
Moe Dunford, meanwhile, creates a gleefully diabolical character in homophobic, rugby-obsessed Pascal. What makes his calculating, ruthless bigot come to life and in some ways even endear the audience is that we have all at one point met someone who doth protest too much. Even in this isolated school community, the reality presented in Handsome Devil is uncanny and subtler than most films of a similar theme.
There is a handful flinchingly painful scenes that bring a heaviness and poignancy to what could have been a light-hearted teenage comedy. His brutal, twisted punishment for Ned when he realises he plagiarised a song for an essay competition leaves even the acerbic Sherry uncomfortable and ashamed; Ned is jilted at a local talent show and must perform solo, and his eventual treachery renders the audience heart-broken, embarrassed and betrayed ourselves. These moments feel essential, however, and capture the awkwardness and social unease of queer adolescence authentically.
There is little indication to when the film is actually set – Ned at once has posters of 90s indie darling Suede and 00s burlesque siren Dita von Teese, and no one mentions Harambe – but it could realistically take place in the early 90s; in 1993 same-sex sexual activity was legalised, signalling an enormous cultural shift in LGBT+ acceptance, but it is fair to assume this seismic change would probably not be felt in the insular world of a Catholic boys’ boarding school.
The final scenes and their reflection on the attitudes of the school boys, however, perhaps indicate that the film takes place closer to 2017: it may be a little schmaltzy, but it is the ending Conor and the gay boys watching deserve.
Ned’s authentic identity remains justifiably ambiguous; the audience never learns whether he’s gay or not, nor should they have to. In retaining this uncertainty, Butler succinctly captures the developmental experience of most LGBT+ youth. He may be queer, or an ally, or simply an artistic soul indignant to the confines of masculinity in contemporary Ireland; in maintaining this haziness, Ned’s experience may be more authentic and faithful to uncertain queer youth than Conor’s.
Granted the film lacks any real diversity: while some audience members might argue against the likelihood of any diverse queer voices or people of colour identifying as LGBT+ in an Irish boys’ boarding school, it would have been more compelling or insightful to have had the exposure of someone other than a gay white male and his off-beat, ambiguous bosom buddy.
Butler balances wonderful humour, heart-wrenching pathos and political statements with great ease and makes this coming-of-age drama even more enjoyable, faithful and poignant than conceivably possible. O’Shea is the breakout star – impossibly likeable and charismatic, even when Ned does not deserve our love – and delivers a wonderful performance to introduce himself to the world stage. Rarely do films capture the simultaneous excited and painful energy of queer adolescence with such poignancy; Handsome Devil may be a touch close to the bone for some viewers, but its joy, insatiable soundtrack and performances make it all worthwhile.