Irish director John Butler has explained his gay-friendly coming-of-age film Handsome Devil using “strict binary definitions” clichés. There’s even a scene where a gay teacher at Wood Hill boarding school advises a young gay student, “It gets better.” He repeats that cliché five times as if to convince his own closeted self. That’s five times too many to flatter forward-thinking viewers who have already agreed to watch a gay-friendly film.
But then, suddenly, comes an original moment: Literature teacher, Mr. Sherry (Andrew Scott, as demonstrative as a drama instructor) commits the first of the film’s traumatizing moments that threaten to not get better; he exposes plagiarism in a homework assignment by Ned (redhead Fionn O’Shea, who narrates the film). Instead of counseling Ned, Mr. Sherry delivers a brief, devastating lecture on personal responsibility and self-authenticity. His reprimand sets out themes of gay social and personal acceptance through an embrace of popular cultural moment.
Mr. Sherry exposes that Ned has pilfered the 1980 song “My Perfect Cousin” by Irish band The Undertones and singer-songwriter Feargal Sharkey. Sherry’s anger is stirred by Ned following convention not conviction—that gay youth tendency to conform to other people’s ideas rather than realizing one’s own nature or acting upon one’s own needs. Using music to define gay experience in a prep school setting makes Handsome Devil a queer version of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore; Butler explores pop and circumstance.
In The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach tried validating plagiarism (intellectual theft) as upper-middle-class savvy, but Handsome Devil takes a more ethical approach to youthful egotism. That’s why Sherry next assigns the scarily queer Lord of the Flies, “a cautionary tale about giving power to a bunch of fragrant, unkempt urchins.”
Butler’s plot is messy. Its central event—Ned humiliating his troubled jock roommate, Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), to whom he is attracted—clashes with the film’s fresh lessons in gay socializing. Ned’s weakness reflects the weakness of others. But through such pop touchstones as The Housemartin’s “Think” and Rufus Wainwright’s “Come On,” Butler shows closeted humanity is not only a problem for gays, but a sign of how others cheat their own needs and their own sensitivities.
As focus shifts between the students’ dilemmas and the faculty’s dilemmas, Butler updates the same problems of male-to-male relations that were dramatized in Merchant-Ivory’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s gay novel Maurice (recently revived on DVD). Forster contended with sex and class while Butler looks past class difference to explore ethics (singer Paul Heaton’s soulful soprano urge during “Think”).
Handsome Devil’s pop enlightenment includes the sensual pleasures of being a rugby movie. Galitzine’s Conor, lead kicker on Wood Hill’s rugby team, stands out among the other broad-shouldered players—and against the macho coach’s (Moe Dunford) homophobia. The teen’s hurtling thighs and massive chest visually plagiarize The Smiths song “Handsome Devil” (“Let me get my hands on your mammary glands...”).
Conor is a rugged and sensitive gay, tough and tender in contrast to effete Mr. Sherry and Ned, whose small-framed twerpy regret sets the film’s apologetic tone. Conor’s virile self-acceptance—including his team’s “I am Spartacus” rallying together in a contrived locker room rally—also gives Butler an erotic advantage over the film version of gay playwright Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, that highly-praised but patronizing view of Britain’s institutional closet. When Galitzine turns his full-lipped, Ian McCullough- smile on Ned or kicks awesome field goals that makes the entire Wood Hill school cheer, he is a living, breathing reinforcement of gay history.