Handsome Devil ****
Starring: Finn O'Shea, Nicholas Galitzine, Andrew Scott, Moe Dunford, Ruairi O'Connor
Director: John Butler
Teenagers can be vicious people. There’s something about a school, especially a single-sex school, that can bring out the worst in young people. For LGBT people, high school can be a difficult balancing act of trying to discover who they are, whilst also hiding their true identity, trying desperately to fit in. In John Butler’s coming-of-age Drama Handsome Devil, the unstoppable force of self-discovery meets the immovable object of homophobia, with somewhat explosive results.
Ned (O’Shea) is being bullied at school for his suspected homosexuality. When new boy Conor (Galitzine) is assigned to share his room, he doesn’t expect to have anything in common with the rugby jock. But as his homophobic coach (Dunford) pushes Conor too far, a friendship sparks up between the two boys, as they discover they have more common ground than they first expected. With assistance from their idealistic but closeted English teacher (Scott), Conor discovers there is more to life than rugby, while Ned discovers that sport and homophobia don’t have to go hand in hand.
Though stories about high school are instantly relatable – we’ve all been through it, after all – there’s something a little archaic about this film. It harks back to a time when homophobia in schools was rampant, institutionalised and as entrenched in the staff as it was the pupils. This simply is not the case anymore in the UK and if events escalated to the levels that they do in Handsome Devil, the repercussions would become a police matter. Admittedly the film is set in Ireland, but the difference in location is unlikely to cause that much of a difference.
However, the story is one that strikes a chord, certainly with anyone who experienced bullying at school for their sexuality. In fact, in the way it has developed the idiosyncratic and uniquely coded taunts is strikingly realistic in the complexity of how difficult it is to pinpoint the origins, nature and perpetrators of widespread homophobia in a school. Though there is one student and one teacher who are singled out as ringleaders of the abuse, the film very successfully depicts how in a culture where this goes unpunished, persecution can seep right into the fabric of the school’s culture. Everyone seems to be complicit. Even if not involved explicitly, their sitting back and allowing Ned’s (and later, Conor’s) persecution to continue makes for a horrific experience for him and unpleasant viewing for us.
The characters are also particularly well-drawn. Ned is a deeply flawed character, who does unpleasant things to serve his own goals. His narration does allow him moments of remorse and explanation, but he appears as a very human character, who is both victim and arbiter in sometimes almost equal parts. Conor, however, is less developed, but it is important to the story that he remain the golden boy, whose good-looks and sporting prowess are not indicative of the macho back-slapping towel-whipping antiquated camaraderie that seems engrained in the culture of his sport. Meanwhile, Andrew Scott’s performance as Mr Sherry is the actor at his best, oozing with confrontational charisma, but still deeply flawed in his own inability to practice what he preaches about honesty.
In 1998, British film Get Real covered very similar ground, but at that time its message of “homophobia in schools is pretty bad” was being preached to a culture yet to do anything about it. Now, the message of “homophobia in schools is pretty bad” in Handsome Devil is being preached to a culture who have done much to tackle this and, most likely, whole-heartedly agree with it. If it presented itself as a historical document, depicting the way homophobia used to be rampant in the schools of the filmmakers’ childhoods, then this would be a much stronger film. But by presenting this story in the present, without even contextualising it as the exception rather than the norm, you can’t help but feel the director is somewhat out of touch with what it is really like to be a LGBT teenager in school nowadays. Though definitely entertaining, this is trying to make a statement, but it’s a statement that comes about twenty years too late.
OUT NOW ON NETFLIX.