Handsome Devil is a charming coming of age tale set against the backdrop of a South Dublin Rugby School.
The film follows loner and outcast Ned, who finds himself shunned at boarding school because he lacks the ability and interest to play rugby. Ned keeps to himself, even isolated from the other boys via his private room. However, Ned’s world is thrown into upheaval when the school receives a new student. Suddenly, Ned finds himself sharing the space with Conor, a promising young rugby prospect who might have the capacity to lead the team into the finals.
The plot beats and themes in Handsome Devil are fairly standard, keeping very much consistent with the genre of coming of age secondary school tales; the notion of self and identity play into, juxtaposed with the urge towards conformity. There are inspiring teachers and tough decisions, eroding cynicism and brutal betrayal. Handsome Devil is aware of these expectations, to the point that all of this is laid out in the exposition-driven framing device at the start of the film.
However, Handsome Devil is elevated by a sense of genuine warmth beneath this very familiar exterior. The script is well-observed, and the direction is light enough to let a charming cast play well off one another. Like Ned, Handsome Devil is nowhere near as cynical as it appears, and it plays best when it drops the wry irony in favour of an endearing humanism.
Handsome Devil very effective captures the sensation of Irish secondary school, particularly for teenagers who are eccentric or different, to those who do not conform to the ethos of the environment where a heavy-duty sports culture is reinforced by the ever-present spectre of religion. Indeed, one of the shrewder moments in Handsome Devil arrives during the establishing montage, with the school’s priest sitting in on the compulsory sex education class to ensure that there is no funny business.
Of course, this sense of isolation and stigma are nothing unique to Irish schools. After all, the canon of American and international secondary school films suggest that disaffected and misunderstood teenage protagonist is a universal constant. What allows Handsome Devil to stand out from the pack is the focus on the particulars of that sense of withdrawal. Ned is physically bullied by his fellow students repeatedly over the course of the film, alluding to swirlees and “pockettings”, but the film does not focus on that violence. Instead, it focuses on Ned’s isolation.
Ned very clearly sits apart from his fellow students, which is a wonderfully observed commentary on what it is to feel different as a child. Ned lives alone in his room; Ned sits alone on the grass; Ned visits the school’s forgotten audio-visual library alone. He gets by, academically, making sly in-jokes with the teachers who seem to “get” him, but he has learned to cope by simply blending into the background. Handsome Devil conveys that sense of retreat very well, through Fionn O’Shea’s performance and John Butler’s direction.
Butler very skilfully captures the mood of this particular blackboard jungle, the bullying and the name-calling that is so pervasive that it almost becomes background noise. The culture in the staff that tolerates this behaviour, either out of deference to the ethos of the school or through sheer disinterest. In particular, Handsome Devil hones in on the casual homophobia of these environments, the toxic masculinity reinforced through a school so fixated up conventional masculine accomplishment.
Handsome Devil is not innovative in terms of constructing its plot. Many of the film’s developments are heavily foreshadowed ahead of time, and many of the characters are the archetypes that you expect in a story like this. Andrew Scott is Dan Sherry, the English teacher who recognises Ned’s potential and his anguish. “It gets better,” Dan insists repeatedly, one outcast to another. Moe Dunford is Pascal, the rugby coach who sees his students as a path to sports glory. Michael McElhatton is Walter Curly, the principle who occasionally seems blind to what’s going on.
However, Handsome Devil works because of the skill of its execution. Butler keeps the secondary school drama slightly heightened, even while tackling themes that could easily become the fodder for a more sombre film. There is always a sense of folly and ridiculousness to life at the school, which is a very accurate sense of how school appears to many pupils. Handsome Devil is almost cartoonish in some respects, particularly with its vivid use of colour; the red of Ned’s hair and the yellow of Pascal’s jacket.
There are moments when Handsome Devil seems a little too arch and a little too wry, where the narration from Ned seems just a little too detached from the drama unfolding. However, Handsome Devil never loses sight of its characters, and never indulges in the cynicism affected by its lead character. Handsome Devil is an unapologetically optimistic film, one that maintains a very strong faith in people even as it captures the crushing despair of secondary school life. Handsome Devil balances on a proverbial knife-edge, and Butler keeps it steady.
Handsome Devil is a charming coming of age story with a good heart. It may hit all of the expected beats for a story like this, but it hits them style and verve.