Our 2017 Inside/Out LGBT Film Festival coverage continues with the heartwarming prep school dramedy Handsome Devil.
Let’s bitch it out…
In my review of Max Emerson’s debut feature, Hooked, I lamented how familiar and cliché the characters and the narrative are. And then along comes Handsome Devil, a heartwarming Irish film that falls into the same traps, but proves to be a significantly more enjoyable film.
Devil‘s greatest asset is its actors. While the plot – mismatched roommates becoming friends and overcoming adversity – is textbook, the performances by leads Fionn O’Shea (Ned) and Nicholas Galitzine (Connor) overcome any objection to the plot’s formulaic elements. Throw in the dazzling charm of Sherlock‘s Andrew Scott, the surly warmth of Game of Thrones‘ Michael McElhattan and a hissable homophobic villain and all of the hallmarks of a feel good film are in place.
The film opens with voice-over from O’Shea’s Ned, returning to boarding school as his father and trophy wife stepmother jet off to Dubai. Sporting a shock of dyed red hair that stands out against every backdrop, Ned is immediately established by director John Butler as the school’s artsy loner and therefore subject to all manner of bullying/taunting, particularly by oafish Weasel (Ruairi O’Connor). Initially pleased to have his own room, Ned is dejected to discover that he not only has a mysterious roommate, but that Connor is the school’s new rugby star. After undergoing a requisite standoffish period (during which Ned humourously divides the room in half with a “Berlin Wall” of furniture), the pair bond over a shared interest in classic alternative rock and, thanks to the machinations of progressive English teacher Dan Sherry (Scott), eventually become close friends.
Traditional plot points abound, including the compulsory inclusion of an essay writing contest (which provides the framing voice-over), a talent contest (humiliating), and a big rugby final to provide closure and end the film on a high. That the outcome of each development is evident from the start is immaterial; part of Handsome Devil‘s pleasure is watching Butler and his cast deftly navigate the familiar conventions of the prep school teen subgenre with wit and charm, coasting on the easy-going chemistry between its leads.
In this capacity O’Shea is marvellous. Although the film concerns the pair’s friendship, the lead belongs to Ned – not only because it is his voice over we hear, but because his arc from pariah to tentative social acceptance is the most compelling. Aside from his distinctive hair colour, O’Shea’s witty performance makes Ned relatable and cheer-worthy, even when it’s clear that he’s self-sabotaging. As Connor, Galitzine has a much less showy role, though he makes his character’s internal strife evident in silences and facial expressions. The adults, while featured far less prominently, are uniformly well-cast, particularly Scott who brings a likeable warmth to his Dead Poet’s Society-esque role. McElhatton is great in his few scenes as Headmaster Walter Curly, though his motivations seem to shift depending on the needs of the script. Finally, as the main antagonist, Moe Dunford’s Coach Pascal provides most of the film’s conflict, although the character isn’t given much depth or nuance.
If there’s one complaint to be made, it is that the resolution of the conflict between mates feels inherently one sided. Following an ill-advised breach of trust, Ned realizes that he’s made a major error in judgment. Setting out to rectify his mistake, Ned embarks on the kind of time-sensitive third act quest commonly employed in romantic comedies to rekindle his friendship with Connor and deliver him to the pitch in time for the final rugby match, but the apology for Connor’s slights against Ned never materializes. While the resolution is heartwarming and uplifting, it feels slightly disingenuous to place all of the blame on Ned, even if his actions were far more destructive. It’s a brief sour moment that muddies an otherwise pleasant ending.
The Bottom Line: Writer/director John Butler has crafted a feel good film that overcomes a fairly predictable plot with winning performances. Bonus points for the great soundtrack featuring artists like The Housemartins, Big Star, The Undertones and Prefab Sprout.