All-boys boarding institutions can be unforgiving to gay adolescence. In the 2016 Irish dramedy Handsome Devil, we have Ned, a scrawny openly gay lad who is put up in one such school, where every interest is effete at the altar of rugby and where atypical masculinities are chewed and spat out. Ned, who writes poetry and plays an instrument, is pretty much jinxed here, pushed around always, and made the target of ridiculously homophobic jibes even if he remains impressively undeterred in the face of such ragging. Handsome Devil opens with Ned feeling somewhat hopeful he may have an entire room to himself this year. That hope is dashed soon as he is greeted by new-fella Connor, a strapping and muscular-kind who is a pro rugby athlete, assigned as his roommate. The first night brings trouble for Ned as he walks into his room to find Connor along with some burly jocks who want Connor to join the rugby team. One such jock who happens to be Ned’s prime bully, coolly tears off a homoerotic poster which Ned had stuck up. And when Ned revolts, he is shoved to the floor. Connor is warned, in no uncertain terms, ‘to beware of Ned, or he may ‘bum’ you at night.’
Wishing to be left alone and avoid further nuisance, Ned creates a clear divide between his side of the room and Connor’s as they restrict their interactions as first. The ice between the two breaks after they bond over their shared interest in music and eventually become friends. Both are encouraged to team up for an upcoming talent competition by their English teacher Dan, one of the few persons around who doesn’t share the school’s fiery passion for rugby and encourages the students to find their own ‘voice.’
Ned and Connor’s budding friendship is put to the test when the latter’s musical pursuit’s clashes with his sporting commitments. Rumors begin to circulate about the nature of their companionship too. As the movie progresses, we find out that Connor may have a secret of his own, potentially jeopardizing his image as the star athlete.
While being a tad predictable, Handsome Devil wins us over with an easygoing charm that makes for an enjoyable watch. Both Fionn O’Shea (playing Ned) and Nicholas Galitzine as Conor Masters receive the bulk of the credit for carrying the film on their shoulders. Nicholas, in particular, convincingly captures Connor’s repressed angst characteristic to the teenage experience. I did wish Fionn’s Ned had a better redemption in the end, especially after all bullying and gaslighting he had to endure, even if things ultimately turned out well for both the leads. Andrew Scott, better known for his performance as Jim Moriarty in Sherlock, is also a delight to watch.
Do catch Handsome Devil on Netflix if you’ll looking for fresh and heartwarming queer cinema!