John Butler channels 80s John Hughes for this Irish coming out story, but unfortunately he also borrows that era's conservative approach to sexuality
Handsome Devil might be the straightest gay film in the history of cinema. Or, to put it another way, its characters may be queer, but the filmmaking certainly isn’t.
The classic high school rom-com formula is in place: a popular kid is forced to spend time with a social misfit, the couple bond over the course of the film, and by the end their love for one another prove so powerful as to shatter the school’s rigid social mores. Usually it’s a cocky jock paired with a plain Jane (Pretty in Pink). Sometimes it’s a stuck-up preppy girl with the school dufus (The Sure Thing). Handsome Devil’s twist is that its chalk and cheese pair both have Y chromosomes.
The setting is an all-boys' boarding school in Ireland. At the bottom of the food chain is Ned (Fionn O’Shea), whose sardonic sense of humour, Man Who Fell to Earth dye job, sexual ambiguity and, worst of all, disdain for rugby make him an outcast. Newbie Conor, meanwhile, is strikingly handsome, does press-ups for fun and rules on the rugby pitch. These superficially different boys are flung together when they become roommates at the start of term, but are soon bonding over The Undertones' My Cousin Kevin when Ned gets caught passing off the lyrics as his own in class – an idea itself that’s half-inched from Noah Baumbach’s Squid and the Whale.
To be fair, this isn’t the first time a filmmaker has stuck close to a tried and tested formula, but given that throughout the film the boys are lectured by their inspirational English teacher (Sherlock's Andrew Scott) to “reveal your true voice, if you dare,” Butler’s slavishly adherence to the playbook feels a little rich.
Even more unforgivable is the film’s skittish approach to the boys’ sexuality. The word gay is barely used, with euphemisms like “he’s on the outside, like me” and “if you’re on the team, it’s my team too” nudging us toward what’s at the heart of the story. This coyness is also evident in the one way Handsome Devil does break from the John Hughes formula: our central couple never get together; the only man-on-man action happens in the scrum.
It’s an incredibly frustrating stance, as in many ways the film is deeply charming. Galitzine’s more moody turn suggests a bright future in dramatic roles while the mischievous O’Shea is a delight, his easy charisma and sharp comic timing so winning he even manages to make Ned's over explanatory voiceover bearable. The movie looks gorgeous too, its eye-catching colour scheme and evocative use of framing and space head and shoulders above what’s expected from a low-budget indie from these Isles.
Curiously, Butler decides to keep the chronology hazy. A poster of Suede’s self-titled debut album on Ned’s wall and a reference to Blur’s Modern Life is Rubbish suggests the setting is circa 1993, but our hero could equally be a hipster millennial with a Britpop fetish. No matter what year the film is set, however, Ned’s school – and Butler’s kid glove approach to his characters' sexuality – feels, in 2017, like the dark ages.
Handsome Devil was the opening film of Glasgow Film Festival: 16 Feb, GFT, 7.30pm | 17 Feb, GFT, 1pm
Follow Jamie Dunn on Twitter at @JamieDunnEsq