Director: John Butler
Talent: Fionn O’Shea, Nicholas Galitzine, Andrew Scott, Moe Dunford
Release Date: 21st April
It is no mean directorial feat for a film set in an Irish boys’ boarding school, and a rugby school at that, to be as fundamentally likeable as John Butler’s Handsome Devil. In it, the diminutive and perennially-bullied Ned (O’Shea) finds an unlikely friend in Conor (Galitzine), a rugby prodigy with a troubled past, when they find themselves paired as roommates at the beginning of the school year. They bond over a love of music, their distant relationships with their parents, as well as a sense of being an outsider in their respective worlds. Things are thrown into turmoil, however, when secrets from Conor’s past emerge that may force him to choose between his developing friendship and his loyalty to the school Senior Cup team.
Butler’s approach to storytelling — down to the narrative framing device of Ned’s personal essay — is very much to transpose the sensibility of John Hughes to an Irish private school setting. This he does with great success. The film balances levity and warmth with high-stakes emotional drama and some genuinely difficult moments. A scene in which Conor’s father – high on booze and narcissistic affection for ‘my son, the athlete’ after a quarter-final win – implores the young man to take a lift back to school with him to ‘have the chats’ stands out in particular. But the film is at its best in negotiating the difficulties of growing up gay, not just in a boys’ school, but in Irish society at large, as a secondary plot involving English teacher Mr. Sherry (Scott) illustrates in poignant terms. In very Hughes-like fashion, Handsome Devil celebrates embracing your individuality, even in an environment – be it school, the rugby team or the wider world that – actively represses such efforts. Its queer approach, though undeniably vanilla, is one that the genre, as well as Ireland more generally, has hitherto suffered from the lack of. Well worthwhile.
Words – Oisin Murphy-Hall