As an ardent fan of Father Ted, I knew I was in for a treat when Ardal O’Hanlon’s innocent eyes floated to the surface of Handsome Devil. However, my attention was quickly snatched by the sulky teenager in the back. Specifically, the comfort with which he wore his skin, and the streaks of neon orange shooting up his hair. The anticipation had me shifting in my seat – until a certain point.
The 2017 Irish drama, directed by John Butler [Papi Chulo], fouses on Ned’s (Fionn O’Shea) return to his rugby-obsessed, all-boys boarding school. Disinterested in popularity and patiently waiting for his teenage years to pass, Ned deems his new rugby star roommate, Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), less than desirable company. With rugby matches and talent competitions in the backdrop, the two gradually tiptoe over the lines of prejudice, realising that they might not be so different after all.
The film stands out for its witty humour, artfully carving out moments of truly agonising awkwardness. The artist behind some of it is the boys’ English teacher, Dan Sherry (Andrew Scott), whose own struggle with self-acceptance smashes Conor’s confidence to pieces. While he can be perceived as an anti-hero – a slave to conformity – he appears to be a reminder of the imperfection and fear that we all struggle with, no matter our age or position. In fact, the presented teacher-student relationship is akin to the one in Peter Weir’s 1989 Dead Poets Society.
The lingering gazes between the boys, and the buzzing confusion spiking up their aggression levels, promise to dip the plot into romance – but never do. Instead, we savour the bittersweet allusion to it, happy enough to witness the protagonists’ growth. The subtlety of their interactions draws some of its charm from Daniel Ribeiro’s 2014 Brazilian drama The Way He Looks, but seems to swerve off that trajectory quite suddenly. The film’s pervading feel-good quality appears to hinge on Conor’s quest to find himself. It’s impaired by his need to juggle his rugby-related popularity and other aspects of his personality – such as musical creativity. This alludes quite strongly to the 2006 musical drama High School Musical, but only on the surface. Handsome Devil is a mature study of the discomfort of a young man trying to find himself in a hostile environment. While the plot seems to play it disappointingly safe at times, it does provide an insight into the reality of those belonging to a minority. Even if it’s only a glimpse.