- 20 Apr 17
Witty, warm, and quietly subversive coming-of-age tale
A hugely necessary voice in comedy, both in Ireland and at large, writer-director John Butler gently subverts expectations of gender and sexuality, while remaining accessible to mainstream audiences. In The Stag, he used the lowly bachelor party to explore oft-unseen expressions of masculinity, and in Handsome Devil, he uses an all-boys school to dismantle what we think about labels and identity.
Fionn O’Shea plays Ned, a boarding school student left ostracised by his rugby-mad peers who believe him to be gay – a fact that’s refreshingly never confirmed nor denied, highlighting Butler’s rejection of labels and binaries. When he’s assigned a new roommate, rugby star Conor (Nicholas Galtzine), Ned is understandably wary. But as the two slowly become friends, it’s clear that both young men have had limiting identities inflicted upon them by other people, and neither one seems to fit.
Butler’s film is as much about the adults in this world as the kids. Andrew Scott plays an English teacher who preaches to students about embracing their authentic voice while stifling his own, while Moe Dunford’s role as a bullying rugby coach shows how homophobia and toxic masculinity are taught, enforced and emulated.
But also resisted. Butler has endless faith in and respect for teenagers’ capacity for wit, empathy and intelligence, and Ned and Conor’s friendship is a joy to behold. Despite the cruelty inflicted upon him, Ned has an unshakeable sense of humour and of self that inspires similar bravery in others.
Occasionally Handsome Devil can feel too safe and familiar, with its strong echoes of Dead Poets Society and The Breakfast Club. But it even manages to gently undo the assumptions and limits of even these classics. If that’s not worthy of a Judd Nelson-style fist in the air moment, nothing is.