Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 26, 2017 6:43 pm 
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From the Mostly British Festival, San Francisco, 16-23 Feb. 2017


The game's the thing

Like the 1998 UK gay film Get Real, this tale from Northern Ireland concerns a school alliance between an outcast and a popular boy. The outcast is red-headed Ned (Fionn O'Shea), a sarcastic young man at the school for his second year, and his new ally is newcomer rugby star Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), who arrives from another school he's left for "fighting" with a fantastic scoring record, and is assigned to room with geek pariah Ned, who has no roommate. Coming upon Conor doing pushups on arrival, Ned, who's no wimp, puts up a "Berlin Wall" between them, not wanting anything to do with a jock. But Conor has a suspiciously gentle, sweet manner, and shared musical tastes bring the two unlike boys together with breakneck speed (the movie title is the name of a song by The Smiths). The division theme carries over with some split-screen shots emphasizing how sharply boarding school seeks to divide people up, the same visuals used in the opening credits.

If Conor and Ned are two opposites who begin to attract, a third pole is the hardened young English teacher, also a newcomer, Mr. Sherry (Andrew Scott), who after a "get tough" start, begins "working with" the class and being "loved for it," according to Ned, who narrates the story. Eventually the mood Conor and Ned will emanate pushes Mr. Sherry to go with the times and become more open with the headmaster about himself.

When rumors go around ("gay" of course is the word for everything bad anyway), pressure comes onto Conor to avoid Ned, and this leads to his being a no-show for their planned guitar duo organized by Mr Sherry at an amateur concert. Ned, with his weak voice and useless guitar playing, is pressed by Mr. Sherry to go on alone right after a fluent black hip hop performer, and it's very embarrassing for all of us.

But who's the actual odd boy out? When the time is ripe the movie starts hinting Conor left his old school for reasons other than just "fighting." Ned finds out more about this on a school rugby trip, where Conor also spots Mr. Sherry in a compromising situation.

Ned makes a public declaration about Conor, a gesture he deeply regrets that also gets him kicked out of the school. (But even that is turned to profit, because he goes on to win an essay contest with a description of his misdeed.) Conor is so disturbed by the situation that he disappears - on the eve of the rugby final where his presence is essential for the school's victory.

Handsome Devil has a feel-good finale, alright, but who would expect a gay coming of age school drama to end in a victorious rugby match? Well, that's the way this movie is conceived. It makes no bones from the start about the fact that at this school everything revolves around rugby - or about its being simplistically constructed as a film. The rugby coach Pascal (the grimacing Moe Dunford) is the movie's resident homophobe, so maybe we need rugby to have one of those.

Conor and Mr. Sherry are outed in different ways that both turn out to be positive. Though he's the narrator and engine of the finale, Ned remains unrevealed, unless we're to take a poster on his wall of two boys kissing that the rugby players tear down at Conor's first arrival as a statement of identity. (Maybe we could, but sometimes this film is a bit too tight-lipped about its gay theme.) From early on when Mr. Sherry catches him submitting a paper that's plagiarized from a song, Ned is learning you have to speak in your own voice, and this is passed on to Conor later. At times Butler's film seems to tell more clearly than it shows.

With its mismatched gay schoolboys, Get Real had a different twist. Its outcast and school winner fall in love, but when the winner lacks the guts to be open about their relationship and even beats him up to hide it, the wimpy guy has to abandon him. In Handsome Devil, Conor, the handsome star athlete, comes out boldly in the end. But everyone is just beginning to find their way. Get Real tells a more empowering story with its brave underdog. But Handsome Devil's picture of pretty much everybody struggling to find who they are isn't untruthful. It's just that Get Real confronts gay issues in a more involving way, without the distraction of a climactic rugby match.

Handsome Devil, 99 mins., debuted at Toronto 11 Sept. 2016; several other festivals. Allan Hunter of Screen Daily called it "immensely likable"; David Rooney of Hollywood Reporter said that its "sweetness, poignancy and breezy humor" made it "pretty darn impossible to resist." The film shows Sunday, 19 Feb. 2017 at the Mostly British Festival at the Vogue Theater in San Francisco.

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