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Handsome Devil

Handsome Devil

Released 21 April 2017
Director John Butler

Fionn O'Shea, Nicholas Galitzine, Andrew Scott, Moe Dunford, Michael McElhatton, Ardal O'Hanlon, Amy Huberman, Ruairi O'Connor
Writer(s) John Butler

Rebecca O'Flanagan, Rob Walpole
Origin Ireland
Running Time 94 minutes
Genre Drama
Rating 15A

Schoolboy errors.

The queer subversion of the coming of age romantic comedy is nothing new and hardly surprising. The teenage years are a minefield of hormones, social pressures and seemingly insurmountable problems – add a little sexual confusion into the mix and things get even trickier. John Butler’s Handsome Devil takes the tropes of the high school romantic comedy and transports them to an Irish boarding school where our mismatched couple are a pair of teenage boys. In terms of visibility this is something to be encouraged by but somewhere along the line, Butler seems to have lost his nerve and the resulting film is curiously chaste, cliché and in a word, straight. This is not to say that the film isn’t a fun watch (it is) but it could have pushed the boundaries a little and become something really interesting and timely.

Ned (Fionn O’Shea) feels like an outcast at his rugby-obsessed boarding school. More interested in listening to old indie records than cheering on the team, he is the favourite target of school bully Weasel (Ruairi O’Connor), who torments Ned by constantly calling him gay, which in the common parlance of idiots everywhere, means lame rather than necessarily homosexual. When Ned is assigned a new roommate, he is immediately hostile. On paper, new boy Conor (Nicholas Galatzine) is everything Ned hates – a testosterone-fuelled rugby player who was expelled from his last school for fighting. As it turns out though, there is more to Conor than meets the eye and he and Ned soon form a close friendship. But will their friendship survive in such hostile territory?

To the film’s credit, this was a question I was invested in. O’Shea and Galatzine have great chemistry and manage to add depth to roles that could have been irritating or one-dimensional. Ned and Conor feel like real teenage boys trying to discover who they really are; it’s a winning formula. The world around them though feels a lot more artificial and some of the characterisations stretch credulity. For example, it’s hard to imagine Mr. Sherry (Andrew Scott at his most ludicrously shouty) espousing the most ridiculous cod-psychology since Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society without the students taking the piss out of him relentlessly. Not only do these rambunctious teenagers love their new English teacher but they’re a hair away from “O captain, my captain” territory. This just doesn’t make sense in the macho world of the film. On the other side of the coin is Moe Dunford’s Neanderthal rugby coach, whose blatant homophobia is equally hard to swallow.

These mis-steps take you out of the world of the film and lessen the impact of the story; and that’s together with the fact that the film never gets to grips with its own sexual politics. While Handsome Devil builds to a heart-warming finale, it never finds the courage of its convictions and as a result remains a fun but inconsequential film.

- Linda O’Brien