John Butler’s Handsome Devil initially hits all the beats of an archetypal Gay Love Story. It features a loner that everyone suspects is gay, a deeply closeted jock, and an auspicious meet-cute through which the boys are introduced: Protagonist Ned (Fionn O’Shea) is a scrawny 16-year-old with bright red hair returning for another year at his posh Irish boarding school, where the social scene orbits around rugby. While Ned’s the school dissident—he’d rather listen to music in his room, plastered with vintage posters, than toss around the old pigskin—his new roommate, Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), is its ace rugby player. This jock-rebel pairing seems to mirror the premises of Jonathan Harvey’s 1996 film Beautiful ThingGet Real, at least at first.
But what makes Handsome Devil a bracing addition to the gay coming-of-age canon is that, despite these trappings, it isn’t a love story: It’s a paean to gay friendship. After Conor and Ned move into their room, Ned builds what he calls a "Berlin Wall"—a barricade of dressers—between their beds to quash any notion that he wants to "bum" Conor in the night. Yet, not long after, Conor sticks up for Ned at practice one afternoon, trouncing the outcast’s "tormenter-in-chief," a guy on the rugby team named, appropriately, Weasel (Ruairi O’Connor). In days, it seems, the two boys bond over their love of music, and, before long, they’re signed up to perform a duet in a variety show at a local girls school. All of this bonding starts, interestingly enough, before Ned even discovers that Conor is gay; until midway through the film, their sexuality is an unspoken part of their friendship.
They bond, instead, in other typically teenage ways. Like Ned, Conor is isolated from the school’s social center. But while Ned is a target for school bullies, Conor’s solitude is emotional: Though he’s the standout rugby player, he tries to hide his sexuality from everyone, including Ned. The story’s poignancy lies in how both boys—each exiled by the school’s anti-gay undertow in his own way—come to rely on the other to navigate the emotional messiness of adolescence. As Ned continues to hang around with Conor, he starts to feel cool. "My defenses were coming down. And, I’d never say it out loud, but it felt pretty good," Ned admits in a voice-over supercut of the two boys playing guitar in their room, palling around. In Ned, Conor finds real friendship, as opposed to the mere camaraderie he experiences with teammates.
If that premise seems a bit trite, Handsome Devil’s pointed humor sets the film apart from other feel-good, coming-of-age yarns. Dan Sherry (Andrew Scott), the iconoclastic new English teacher who, à la Dead Poets Society, inspires reluctant students with a funny but no-nonsense approach to pedagogy, has the best lines. Early on in the film, after he lauds Ned’s essay and asks him to read it aloud for the class, Mr. Sherry pulls a CD player out from under his desk and plays The Undertones‘ "My Perfect Cousin" to demonstrate that Ned had cribbed lyrics from the song for his paper.
As the students double over with laughter, Sherry makes the deeper point: "Never, ever, ever use a borrowed voice," he says. That’s a corny sentiment perhaps, but it’s also a resonant wink at the film’s protagonists, who are each playing archetypal roles—the rebel, the jock—just to survive high school.
And Handsome Devil complicates the cinematic trope of the galvanizing teacher too. About halfway through the story, Conor discovers that Sherry is secretly gay. When Conor is outed at school, he looks to Sherry for counsel; however, the teacher is able to offer little practical guidance. "It gets better. It gets better. That’s all I can say to you," he says, despite the fact that, at least publicly, he’s still hiding his own sexuality. With this line, the film strips Sherry of his eloquence and shows that it isn’t only Ned and Conor who are growing up—Sherry, in some ways, also is still trying to come of age. The moment serves as a reminder of the difficulty of doing so, at any age, in a society that continues to have a tenuous relationship with the gay community.
in touch gay adult magazine "the devil made me do it…" #227 march 1996 paperback – january 1, 1996
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It isn’t only ned and conor who are growing up—sherry, in some ways, also is still trying to come of age.
Despite occasional conflicts, the friendship of these three characters—Ned, Conor, and Sherry—strengthens them against a homophobic culture. After Conor leaves school in the fallout of his outing, Ned brings him back just in time for a big rugby match (naturally). And, in a role reversal of teacher and student, Conor inspires Sherry to abandon his borrowed voice and introduce his "fella"—his boyfriend—to the school. In this film, gay friendship, not just romantic love and family acceptance, is a key plank of the coming-out experience.
By tapping into coming-of-age tropes viewers might already know—like the 1983 adaptation of The Outsiders, for instance, Handsome Devil is bookended by a main character narrating an essay about a dear friend—but then complicating these tropes with a queer inflection, Butler widens the spectrum of entertainment portrayals of what it means to grow up gay. That matters, particularly at a time when those strictures are changing: In the U.S., a conservative justice has just been appointed to the Supreme Court, and Obama-era protections that allowed transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice were rolled back in February.
In a recent interview with the Guardian, Scott nodded to the film’s message of the importance of living "an authentic life," especially now. "I think the arts need to respond ferociously," Scott said, referring to the Trump administration’s push against LGBTQ anti-discrimination policies. "The only way is to make stuff that’s truthful and make sure it’s seen by everybody." Even if this Irish, indie film won’t be seen by "everybody," its message—of the power of community in homophobic environments—forms the powerful rejoinder that Scott promises.
Brandon Tensley is a contributing writer at Pacific Standard. He is also an associate editor at New America and a co-host of Slate’s Outward podcast.
A boarding school, where rugby is king is the setting for this coming-of-age import.
In what I think might be the best feel-good film of the year, “Handsome Devil” will get its west coast premiere at the 19th annual San Diego LGBT Film Festival presented by FilmOut.
This means if you haven’t already purchased your tickets for the screening of this wonderfully uplifting and joyous movie, please head HERE right now and but two tickets; one for you and one for a very good friend.
I say this every year around FilmOut time, the quality of LGBT film making has broadened more than just hot guys trying to get other hot guys undressed and naked on screen. It’s an evolution of gay film which enraptures its audience from the heart.
Yes, there is certain enjoyment in seeing that sort of film. The sinewy archetypes if anything are funny and even bear-magazine.com too long have the entries into gay cinema been about everything the 2006 parody "Not Another Gay Movie" exploits and mocks.
However, thankfully, "Handsome Devil" isn’t about sexuality in the bedroom sense, it’s about friendships, bonds between people who aren’t motivated by carnal desires.
The film serves as a reminder that change can be made, and it will, with encouragement and support from those who truly understand us and give us reasons to break free from the duct tape rolled out by those who wish we would just shut up.
Oh yeah, and “Handsome Devil" is also a sports movie.
In fact, at its core, the movie is a sports movie just as “The Blind Side” and “Remember the Titans” are sports movies. It even has a nail-biting ending on a rugby field, but the stakes go way beyond the final numbers on the score board.
Directed by John Butler, “Handsome Devil” is told by the young studious Ned Roche (Fionn O’Shea), an Irish lad who may or may not be gay.
You see the film never really let’s us know by way of admission, but it’s safe to say he is. And this causes some strife in his exclusive all-male boarding school where he is an outcast not only because he is perceived to want to “bugger” his room mates, but because he dyes his hair Prince Harry red and posts mild male erotica on his bedroom walls.
If anything, being different or not liking rugby outs you, puts a target on your head, not a good way to make friends at this school. Since Ned is both, that singles him out for bullying and persecution.
But Ned is a fiery one, and like his red hair; defiant, even amid consternation and black eyes.
Enter new student Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), a handsome, legendary rugby star who moves into Ned’s room. He is the talk of campus. His reputation for being one hell of a rugby player precedes him and the school is excited to have him join the team.
But Conor also holds a secret, one that could ruin him especially at the hands of the homophobic bulldozer Weasel (Ruairi O’Connor); a student whose actions are violent both physically and verbally.
Bring into this mix a new English teacher, Mr. Sherry (Andrew Scott) who replaces the recently deceased former teacher, and also has a secret to bear.
This trio of characters make the best of their situations at school by ignoring their personal problems. Ned takes up guitar, Conor of course focuses on rugby and Mr. Sherry hands out assignments that challenge the students to think for themselves.
Rugby does tie the whole film together. In fact after winning a match, Conor’s proud dad treats all the boys to pints where Conor gets drunk and wanders into a bar on the way back to campus.
This is also is a turning point for our red-haired Ned who suddenly realizes he isn’t the only one who is different at the school.
I’m not going to give anything more away about this beautiful and heartwarming film. To do so would ruin the experience, and besides there’s also a big game to look forward to at the end.
"Handsome Devil’s” lead Fionn O’Shea has a quiet appeal. He is handsome in a boyish way, and never trivializes Ned as a victim. He is funny, endearing and intelligent. He’s just not sure which better suits him.
That is until Conor moves into his room. Suddenly Ned gets a clearer picture of the abuse he is suffering from a different perspective and the path he must take to take the right kind of unselfish control over his own life.
O’Shea is destined to go on to major motion pictures with his talents. In fact, he has been cast opposite Keira Knightly in Alexander Skarsgard in their next feature.
Nicholas Galitzine plays Conor as a pensive tormented soul who comes to the new school as an escape from the last one. The weight of the world is carried in his eyes and rarely does he smile even though jock privilege and good looks could get him anything he wants.
Conor has a sad façade that always seems to be on the verge of rage, but he saves most of that for the rugby field.
“Handsome Devil,” with all of its comic book panel transitions, great rock soundtrack and voice-over narrative has an air of humor. It is a drama at its core and director John Butler keeps everything going smoothly with comedy and drama in all the right places.
He also does a great job of creating suspense in the final quarter of the film.
Butler also never allows the young men to fall madly in love, he lets the audience speculate into what degree their friendship will cultivate.
"Handsome Devil" isn’t weighted down by preachiness, but lifted by it’s spirit. It’s a moving, uplifting film without being too softhearted.
It’s an independent film which undoubtedly will be seen by a certain audience, but could easily be appreciated by so many more if they could just get past their own fears.
"Handsome Devil" makes its west coast premiere at San Diego LGBT Film Festival presented by FilmOut on Sunday, June 11 at 5:15 pm at the The Observatory – North Park
The Observatory – North Park is located at 2891 University Ave, San Diego, CA 92104