Sadly, there are no Smiths songs included in this sprightly, intelligent film Handsome Devil from Irish writer/director John Butler- the opener of Glasgow Film Festival 2017. But there is some glorious stuff, from Big Star to The Housemartins to The Undertones, in addition to a chiming Johnny Marr-esque original soundtrack by John McPhillips. For music is very much the binding ingredient in this lovingly made coming-of-age film. When wry,skinny, indie-loving outcast Ned Roche (Fionn O’Shea) is packed off to boarding school following the death of his mother, he makes an unlikely ally in the muscular form of Conor (Nicholas Galitzine) a gay rugby player who is struggling to reconcile his sexuality with his brilliant sportsmanship, as well as the boorish drinking culture.
What follows is a chaste, rather light but witty comedy-drama about the vagaries of masculinity, the transformative power of music, and how the choices we face as teenagers often cast long shadows into adulthood. When laddish homophobe Pascal (who also happens to be the rugby coach) hears rumours of the lad’s sexual preferences, he forces him to choose between friendship with music-loving Ned, or staying on ‘his’ team.
Moe Dunford captures the bigotry as the idiotic Pascal beautifully, all bluster, smirks and towel-snapping machismo; but running counter to this is inspirational English teacher Dan (Andrew Scott) bringing to his role the same spirit as in Pride, another crowd-pleaser focusing on LGBTQI issues, in which he also starred . The problems are mostly neatly resolved, yet it’s the squirm-inducing hilarious asides and lovely writing that eschew more heavy-handed or obvious fare, calling to mind our own Scottish director Bill Forsyth.
It is never entirely made clear if Ned himself is gay, confused, or merely a good friend to Conor, but it’s occasionally implied (‘talking about sexual identity was like staring at the sun’, he says in voiceover as he is bullied by the school knuckle-grazers at the film’s opening) but their bonding is touching indeed, and even if the film ticks all the right heartwarming boxes, it’s the turns from these young leads that burn brightly throughout.O’Shea and Galitzine capture the awkwardness, optimism, and cringe-making colours of teenage life, without ever once dropping the ball.
Radiant Films International, reviewed at Glasgow Film Theatre
GFF runs from February 15-26 across various venues. Check the website for more information, and to book tickets