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Film Review: Handsome Devil



Being a teenager a pretty damn awful, let’s be honest. On top of exams, navigating romances, and all those hormones raging through your body, there’s also that little matter of trying to make sense of who you are and who you are becoming. There’s a reason why people have connected to coming-of-age movies generation after generation. Handsome Devil, the John Butler-directed film set to be released in New Orleans this week, is a welcome LGBTQ addition to the genre. 

 

Loosely based on The Smiths song of the same name, Handsome Devil feels in many ways like the spiritual successor to the iconic coming-of-age movie Dead Poets Society. A more 21st century bent on the 1989 tale of adolescent courage, Handsome Devil addresses themes of queerness, friendship, and the power of art. 

 

The film follows Ned Roche (Fionn O’Shea), a teen outsider new to an Irish boarding school. He likes art and isn’t a rugby fanatic, therefore he’s an outcast to his peers. His queerdom is greatly explored, and becomes fodder for his teen tormentors. He’s gay — meant alternately as homosexual and the lazy teen idiom of being “not cool.” His only solace is his room all to himself — until the new star athlete Connor Masters (Nicholas Galitzine) becomes his roommate.

 

With two such polar opposite personalities, they’re posed to become enemies. In a lesser teen movie, this is how the narrative would go: the art freaks and jocks show down, and only one will emerge victorious by the time graduation comes. Handsome Devil respects the tender power of the teenage experience, showcased in works like the aforementioned Dead Poets Society, some of John Hughes better movies, as well as 1990s television series like My So-Called Life, and Freaks and Geeks

 

True to Society — not to mention the following trend of ‘cool teacher’ movies like Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, Mona Lisa Smile — the boys learn something not taught in the classroom, thanks to new English teacher, Mr. Sherry (Andrew Scott, aka James Moriarty from BBC’s Sherlock). Sherry demonstrates that to put up a façade as someone else only holds yourself back, helping the two new roommates create a special bond over music. He says such revelatory lines like, “You have to learn about what is much more important than cool, and that is what is beautiful.” 

 

The narrative is a classic bildungsroman. The uncomplicated story structure of two unlikely people creating a bond and then seeing that connection tested by judgmental external forces is at play. Here, their new friendship is challenged by the school’s rugby team and coach Pascal O’Keeffe (Moe Dunford) who try to separate them as they aren’t like-minded. But as opposed to playing as repetitive or derivative, the classic story arc serves Handsome Devil well. Due to the story’s inherent focus on growing tension in impressionable young men, Butler leans on the safety of the structure to ground the film. Themes of queerness and identity are given room to be explored and blossom. If the arc was more challenging or experimental, the quality of the story would be at risk. 

 

In addition to directorial duties, Butler also wrote Handsome Devil. It’s a highly entertaining story, and impressed me equally with its truly funny jokes and creative awe when the boys try to sing together for the first time. 

 

As an American from the glorious state of Louisiana, I admittedly don’t know much about rugby — a major plot device. Rugby is a somewhat niche sport in New Orleans, but consider that sport is to Ireland as high school football is to Texas. It’s not simply a sport, it’s a religion, a way of life. Connor’s position as an out end is similar in importance to a quarterback — the stakes are high and realistic, both within the high school context: without Connor, the team is doomed. That alone sheds some light on the brewing tension between Coach Pascal and Mr. Sherry, who argue about what is best for Connor. In a summer of action-packed blockbusters, it’s a refreshing story about affection in all aspects of life. 

 

The acting in Handsome Devil is consistently impressive. The two leads O’Shea and Galitzine deliver superb performances as the meek, artistic outcast and taciturn, misunderstood jock, respectively. Dunford’s Coach Pascal shows oft-misguided care for the kids’ wellbeing, functioning beyond the two-dimensional “older person” character in most other high school movies. The standout performance is from Andrew Scott’s Mr. Sherry. He holds the film together with just enough screen time to keep the narrative engaging, yet aloof at times to let the two young leads shine. Scott puts on his best performance to date — and if you have seen him as Moriarty, that is quite the feat.

 

Beyond a few minor notes, this is a near-perfect film — my only criticism being that I wanted more. The split screen montages, though effective at times, are used heavily throughout the film and at times grows a little tedious to see. The villain in the film, the bully Weasel (Rusiri O’Connor) is an interesting character, but feels flat. His clear disdain for Ned is never explained except the first encounter in the school. Some more backstory about him would have been interesting. The captain of the rugby team Victor (Jay Duffy) is supposed to be the leader of the pack, but falls to the wayside until the end of the film — he functions mainly to break up the constant scuffles, but doesn’t speak up much about his opinion of Connor. To further tease out their dynamic would have offered a new level of adolescent insight. I would like to see the movie have a longer run time of 132 minutes to fully explore the nuances of the aforementioned rugby players and overall school’s friendship to Connor and Ned. 

 

Those are minor gripes though, and do not change the fact that Handsome Devil is a superb movie. The wonderfully-crafted story is handled with care in Butler’s hands, and the auteur assembled a talented cast of actors to bring this story to life. Viewers too can relive a bit of their high school days, thanks to an expert music education via a killer soundtrack featuring Big Star, The Undertones, Rufus Wainwright, Trashcan Sinatras, and Prefab Sprout. Though the original song from which the film took its name is a bit too-the-point (featuring the lyrics “Let me get my hands / on your mammary glands” and some of the most sexually pointed lyrics from Morrissey’s career “A boy in the bush / is worth two in the hand / I think I can help you / get through your exams”), Handsome Devil is a tender exploration into teen understanding of self. The lesson at its heart is ageless. 

 

 

Handsome Devil will be playing at Zeitgeist Arts Center starting Friday, June 30th. 

 

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Contributors

Renard Boissiere, Evan Z.E. Hammond, Naimonu James, Wilson Koewing, J.A. Lloyd, Nina Luckman, Dead Huey Long, Alexis Manrodt, Joseph Santiago, Andrew Smith, Cynthia Via, Austin Yde

Photographers


Art Director

Michael Weber, B.A.

Editor


Listings Editor

Linzi Falk

Editor Emeritus

Alexis Manrodt


B. E. Mintz


Stephen Babcock

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