Writer-director John Butler’s Handsome Devil favorably compares to other boarding school coming-of-age dramas like School Ties and Dead Poet’s Society. Butler’s film packs more irreverence than those films, and has a kind of tongue-in-cheek sensibility, but a lot of the elements are the same. Much of the drama is focuses on a pair of roommates, the main protagonist Ned (Fionn O’Shea), and his closeted gay roommate Conor (Nicholas Galitzine). Ned is quite sarcastic, delivers voice-over throughout the film, and is a constant target for bullying and homophobic taunts. By contrast, Conor is an amazing rugby player, and quickly wins over the rest of the campus. Despite their differences, the two roommates develop a friendship.
The School Ties tie-ins are numerous. Conor is a ringer in an incredibly popular sport, but he is also hiding a secret that could destroy him if it gets out, and there are plenty of jealous upper-classmen who would live to out him. Dead Poet’s Society is evident in an inspirational English teacher named Mr. Sherry (Andrew Scott), who quickly captures the imagination of the characters through ingenious methods, and becomes a kind of mentor to Conor and Ned. He has a natural foil in the rugby coach Pascal, who is insistent that Rugby is the most important thing in the world.
Hence, Handsome Devil is a study in well-traveled conflicts: nerds vs. jocks, gays vs. straights, individuals vs. the group. Separate instances of these conflicts play out to varying quality and effect, but as a whole, the film certainly succeeds in its melodrama. Certain aspects detract slightly from the overall appeal, such as the aforementioned heavy reliance on Ned’s voice-over, but the final product is more pleasant than it is annoying. Handsome Devil may fail to reach the iconic heights of its predecessors, but it does have a unique voice and something important and new to say about friendship, group-think, bullying, and secrecy.
Sunday, March 5, 5:30 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Tickets can be purchased at the Toronto Irish Film Festival website.