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How 'Handsome Devil' Expands the Gay Coming-of-Age Canon

John Butler's new film about gay friendship puts a powerful spin on generic, feel-good Hollywood stereotypes.
handsome devil

John Butler's Handsome Devil initially hits all the beats of an archetypal Gay Love Story. It features a loner that everyone suspects is gay, a deeply closeted jock, and an auspicious meet-cute through which the boys are introduced: Protagonist Ned (Fionn O'Shea) is a scrawny 16-year-old with bright red hair returning for another year at his posh Irish boarding school, where the social scene orbits around rugby. While Ned's the school dissident—he'd rather listen to music in his room, plastered with vintage posters, than toss around the old pigskin—his new roommate, Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), is its ace rugby player. This jock-rebel pairing seems to mirror the premises of Jonathan Harvey's 1996 film Beautiful Thing or Simon Shore's 1998 drama Get Real, at least at first.

But what makes Handsome Devil a bracing addition to the gay coming-of-age canon is that, despite these trappings, it isn't a love story: It's a paean to gay friendship. After Conor and Ned move into their room, Ned builds what he calls a "Berlin Wall"—a barricade of dressers—between their beds to quash any notion that he wants to "bum" Conor in the night. Yet, not long after, Conor sticks up for Ned at practice one afternoon, trouncing the outcast's "tormenter-in-chief," a guy on the rugby team named, appropriately, Weasel (Ruairi O'Connor). In days, it seems, the two boys bond over their love of music, and, before long, they're signed up to perform a duet in a variety show at a local girls school. All of this bonding starts, interestingly enough, before Ned even discovers that Conor is gay; until midway through the film, their sexuality is an unspoken part of their friendship.

They bond, instead, in other typically teenage ways. Like Ned, Conor is isolated from the school's social center. But while Ned is a target for school bullies, Conor's solitude is emotional: Though he's the standout rugby player, he tries to hide his sexuality from everyone, including Ned. The story's poignancy lies in how both boys—each exiled by the school's anti-gay undertow in his own way—come to rely on the other to navigate the emotional messiness of adolescence. As Ned continues to hang around with Conor, he starts to feel cool. "My defenses were coming down. And, I'd never say it out loud, but it felt pretty good," Ned admits in a voice-over supercut of the two boys playing guitar in their room, palling around. In Ned, Conor finds real friendship, as opposed to the mere camaraderie he experiences with teammates.

If that premise seems a bit trite, Handsome Devil's pointed humor sets the film apart from other feel-good, coming-of-age yarns. Dan Sherry (Andrew Scott), the iconoclastic new English teacher who, à la Dead Poets Society, inspires reluctant students with a funny but no-nonsense approach to pedagogy, has the best lines. Early on in the film, after he lauds Ned's essay and asks him to read it aloud for the class, Mr. Sherry pulls a CD player out from under his desk and plays The Undertones' "My Perfect Cousin" to demonstrate that Ned had cribbed lyrics from the song for his paper.

As the students double over with laughter, Sherry makes the deeper point: "Never, ever, ever use a borrowed voice," he says. That's a corny sentiment perhaps, but it's also a resonant wink at the film's protagonists, who are each playing archetypal roles—the rebel, the jock—just to survive high school.

And Handsome Devil complicates the cinematic trope of the galvanizing teacher too. About halfway through the story, Conor discovers that Sherry is secretly gay. When Conor is outed at school, he looks to Sherry for counsel; however, the teacher is able to offer little practical guidance. "It gets better. It gets better. That's all I can say to you," he says, despite the fact that, at least publicly, he's still hiding his own sexuality. With this line, the film strips Sherry of his eloquence and shows that it isn't only Ned and Conor who are growing up—Sherry, in some ways, also is still trying to come of age. The moment serves as a reminder of the difficulty of doing so, at any age, in a society that continues to have a tenuous relationship with the gay community.

It isn't only Ned and Conor who are growing up—Sherry, in some ways, also is still trying to come of age.

Despite occasional conflicts, the friendship of these three characters—Ned, Conor, and Sherry—strengthens them against a homophobic culture. After Conor leaves school in the fallout of his outing, Ned brings him back just in time for a big rugby match (naturally). And, in a role reversal of teacher and student, Conor inspires Sherry to abandon his borrowed voice and introduce his "fella"—his boyfriend—to the school. In this film, gay friendship, not just romantic love and family acceptance, is a key plank of the coming-out experience.

By tapping into coming-of-age tropes viewers might already know—like the 1983 adaptation of The Outsiders, for instance, Handsome Devil is bookended by a main character narrating an essay about a dear friend—but then complicating these tropes with a queer inflection, Butler widens the spectrum of entertainment portrayals of what it means to grow up gay. That matters, particularly at a time when those strictures are changing: In the U.S., a conservative justice has just been appointed to the Supreme Court, and Obama-era protections that allowed transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice were rolled back in February.

In a recent interview with the Guardian, Scott nodded to the film's message of the importance of living "an authentic life," especially now. "I think the arts need to respond ferociously," Scott said, referring to the Trump administration's push against LGBTQ anti-discrimination policies. "The only way is to make stuff that's truthful and make sure it's seen by everybody." Even if this Irish, indie film won't be seen by "everybody," its message—of the power of community in homophobic environments—forms the powerful rejoinder that Scott promises.