How did you fare during your school days? Were you an jock, a nerd, a rebel? Were you one of the popular kids, or were you picked on? I was lucky - despite firmly falling into the outcast category, my class was small and we all got along relatively effortlessly. Yet for so many kids, your appearance determines how you are judged - and it could be argued that nothing much changes as you get older. The new Irish film 'Handsome Devil' deals with being different while growing up - and why there's nothing wrong with that.
Ned (Fionn O'Shea) is a loner at his all boys' boarding school, preferring to disappear inside 80s music rather than concern himself with the rugby team the school feverishly supports. His sole companion is teacher Mr Sherry (Andrew Scott, 'Sherlock', 'Pride') - that is, until he's forced to share a room with new boy Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), who also happens to be the new star of the football team. Standing for everything that Ned hates, it's hate at first sight towards Conor - until the boys discover they have more in common than first thought, and an unlikely friendship develops. But with Conor at the top of the food chain and Ned firmly at the bottom, how long will their association be allowed to last?
Although the synopsis might not reveal it, this is actually a queer film - though not something that the film is defined by. It plays a part in alienating Ned - who is gay - from the rest of the boys, in addition to his quirkiness and dislike of sport. In essence, a boys-only boarding school acts as a microcosm, where homophobia is exacerbated by the apparent necessity to exert masculinity.
This is unquestionably a low-budget film, costing roughly AU$1.5 million, yet the money has been wisely spent. The cast are all exceptional, with the two virtually unknown leads giving solidly convincing performances. O'Shea makes his despondent black sheep entirely likeable, while Galitzine plays Conor as surprisingly quiet, yet with a captive anger. Scott as the inspirational 'Dead Poets Society'-esque English teacher manages not to go too over the top while waxing philosophical, and inevitably plays a much more integral role in the film than you might expect. Michael McElhatton (TV's 'The Fall' and 'Game Of Thrones') is commanding in the role of the headmaster, while Moe Dunford ('Vikings') plays a convincingly homophobic, footy-mad coach.
A boys-only boarding school acts as a microcosm, where homophobia is exacerbated by the apparent necessity to exert masculinity.
Similarly, the script from the film's writer/director John Butler is a solid piece of work. Dialog is minimised in the best possible way, avoiding cringeworthy clichéd lines in favour of simplicity, necessity and sincerity. Sure, there's nothing particularly unique about the plot, but the drama and comedy interwoven throughout the story is handled adeptly.
Where the film's low budget does become obvious is in its filmmaking techniques. With a few neat cinematic tricks up its sleeve, its downfall does come from its relatively bland naturalistic lighting and unsteady sound mixing.
The moral of 'Handsome Devil' is to use your own voice, rather than being someone else. Its devil-may-care attitude emphasises there's nothing wrong with being different, which is an important message in a world where such a high price is put on fitting in. Integrating issues such as sexuality and bullying into a feel-good story is a clever approach, and one which succeeds. While it might not have the gravitas of 'Weekend' or 'Holding The Man', 'Handsome Devil' still has an important message to impart, and does so with ample heart.