Versions of many of the key elements in Irish writer-director John Butler’s Handsome Devil are familiar, from the geek pariah to the secret gay jock, the inspirational English teacher to the homophobic rugby coach, right down to the sports match as a test of outsider self-affirmation. But the sweetness, poignancy and breezy humor of this Emerald Isle bildungsroman also make it pretty darn impossible to resist.
Winning performances from Fionn O’Shea and Nicholas Galitzine as odd-couple pals, plus nuanced work from a terrific Andrew Scott as a man who practices what he preaches by stepping out from the shadows, make this a feel-good “It Gets Better” tale that should speak to young audiences — LGBT teens in particular.
Unable to convince his widowed father (Ardel O’Hanlon) and chilly stepmother (Amy Huberman) that a boarding school where rugby is a religion is the wrong place for him, Ned Roche (O’Shea) braces himself for another term of ridicule, much of it at the hands of his “tormentor in chief,” Weasel (Ruairi O’Connor). A scrawny, self-styled 16-year-old rebel with over-dyed red hair and a room decorated with David Bowie lyrics and Dita Von Teese pinups, Ned’s solitary nature and ambiguous sexuality make him a target for gay slurs from his tribal classmates.
When transfer student Conor (Galitzine) is assigned as his new roommate, the mismatch portends extreme discomfort. A melancholy hunk with bee-stung lips and a stellar record on the rugby field, Conor left his previous school under a cloud. Believing that cohabiting with the enemy will only make his school life more hellish, Ned erects a “Berlin Wall” down the middle of the room, attempting to keep to himself. But Conor has his own issues causing him to feel alone in the flock, and his shy efforts to reach out eventually give Ned an unaccustomed taste of friendship and acceptance.
A novelist as well as a filmmaker, Butler frames the story with the somewhat prosaic device of a national essay competition via which Ned lays bare his most embarrassing moment, and with it the guilty sting of having betrayed a genuine friend. But while this leads to life lessons being spelled out rather than seamlessly embedded, it’s effective enough. It also has amusing echoes early in the action when Ned shamelessly pilfers song lyrics in class essays for an English teacher too old and clueless to spot the plagiarism.
That free ride ends when the teacher’s abrupt death ushers in a more savvy replacement, Dan Sherry (Scott), who has zero tolerance for laziness or stupidity. Spotting the potential in both Ned and Conor, Mr. Sherry encourages their friendship and their musical interests, signing them up against their better judgment to participate in a talent show at a neighboring girls’ school.
However, rugby coach Pascal O’Keeffe (Moe Dunford), whose own shortcomings as a man feed his bitter prejudices, resents the distraction from Conor’s game as the school team approaches its first final match in a decade. He sows dissent between the friends that lands Ned back in social exile, gets Conor ostracized and puts Dan on the spot about his own secrets.
All of this yields fairly predictable results but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, largely because the actors breathe so much charm into the material. O’Shea brings unexpected pluck and spry intelligence to what could have been just another carrot-top weakling, while Galitzine wears his smoldering cloak of growing-pain sorrow with tenderness and grace. Butler’s decision to keep it all quite chaste is mildly disappointing, though the theme of emerging from hiding and finding your voice resonates loud and clear.
Scott is excellent, making Dan sarky and impatient at first before revealing a softer, warmer side as the lads’ experiences cause him to consider how he himself has chosen to wear a mask in the convention-bound school. Ireland’s rugby obsession gets a good-natured ribbing in Butler’s screenplay, from the macho bigotry of Dunford’s Pascal to the more institutional cheerleading of the school headmaster (the always reliable Michael McElhatton).
Butler keeps the light-hearted story skipping along with sustained energy. Editor John O’Connor effectively uses split-screen and wipes to transition between scenes, while cinematographer Cathal Watters splashes the widescreen canvas with vibrant color. Given the central role of music in Ned’s cultural formation, it also helps to have an eclectic assortment of alternative bands heard from or cleverly referenced throughout, among them The Housemartins, Big Star, The Undertones and Prefab Sprout, which should steer curious young audiences to Spotify to explore some fine vintage cuts.
“Handsome Devil” will be shown at Frameline 41 at the Victoria Theatre Saturday, June 17 and Tuesday, June 20.