When will boys finally allowed to be boys?

Photo: Fionn O’Shea as Ned (left) and Nicholas Galitzine as Conor in ‘Handsome Devil,’ screening at The Neon May 31

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Every school—public or private, in the U.S. or comparable settings abroad—has students like Ned (Fionn O’Shea) and Conor (Nicholas Galitzine). Ned is the awkwardly independent type, the kid who doesn’t fit into the social order of the institution and simply tries to keep his head down, in an effort to endure the petty abuses and escape as unscathed as possible. Conor, on the other hand, is the star athlete, the celebrated hero with the power of popularity at his disposal.

In writer-director John Butler’s new release, “Handsome Devil,” these two Irish lads wind up rooming together at a boarding school, along the way developing an uneasy friendship that starts to wear at the seams. There’s a line in the trailer that speaks to the idea that everyone who’s ever been young understands what it feels like to be humiliated, and you can see just how the budding relationship between the roommates will crack. They will break down the wall between them, through a shared interest in music, but then Conor will struggle with his teammates once they see how he’s warming up to Ned, the classic bullied outsider. Will Conor be able to publically embrace his true feelings for Ned?

What’s fascinating about “Handsome Devil,” which I admittedly haven’t seen, is how its basic premise has haunted 20th century literature and film, while in many cases being ashamed of speaking to certain truths that we are now apparently waking up to. In novels like “A Separate Peace” and films ranging from “Dead Poets Society” to “School Ties,” we’ve been placed in the company of young characters forced to hide some aspect of themselves (generally race or religion) in the face of mainstream backlash, but in these close-quarters settings, an underlying (and largely unspoken) sense of homophobia has always hovered over the proceedings.

There are always “sensitive” guys lurking on the margins, students uninterested in sports or the rising call to arms that sometimes mark the sign of the times, and we all know what those defining traits mean and say about those characters. And even when a narrative dares to open up one of its leads, as is the case with Conor, by having him embody the natural complexity of both jock and musician, we know there will be a third-act retreat to a neutral safe zone, either through a heterosexual union with a cheerleader or some other popular female type, or a defiant position as a solitary martyr.

Such coding of behavior has become the bedrock of our culture. To be young, intelligent, and Jewish/black/gay is to remain invisible, alone in the crowd. But Butler shocks us by spotlighting the allure of difference, challenging us to “see” Conor and, likely, to some extent, Ned as handsome. Attractiveness is a recognized, known quantity. It cannot remain hidden.

What is visible is all of Conor—his obvious athletic ability, but also his sensitive side. Society is undergoing a curious set of sensory adjustments, an awakening to a new reality about sexuality, orientation, and identity. Moving quickly past questioning what we see to accepting truths that might not be immediately apparent, we are coming to grips with developing a new standard for attractiveness. And I suppose you could say, the devil is in the details.

The tagline for “Handsome Devil” offers up a binary approach—follow the crowd, or follow your heart—but that’s sadly a remnant of our entrenched mindset that’s still stuck in the past. The heart isn’t the guiding force anymore; we’re in thrall to the unshakeable truth of our bodies and ourselves. The old types and stories will never be the same. Come watch the dawn of the new order.

 

As part of the kickoff of Dayton PRIDE, a one-time special showing of ‘Handsome Devil’ will screen Wednesday, May 31 at The Neon, 130 E. Fifth St. in downtown Dayton. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $8. Tickets can be purchased through The Neon’s box office or through EventBrite.com. All ticket proceeds will be donated to The Greater Dayton LGBT Center. For more information, please visit NeonMovies.com.

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T.T. Stern-Enzi
Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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