Streaming’s Hidden Treasures: Handsome Devil

Image: Icon Productions

Streaming has changed the way we view films. It is a change that has been welcomed by many and sniffed at by others. Like it or not, however, Netflix, Amazon and the like play a huge part in being a film-lover today. These platforms have vast amounts to offer, some of which is sorely overlooked. Streaming’s Hidden Treasures aims to pick out quality, different and lesser-known cinema from across the internet, offering a guide to a variety of entertainment with ease and affordability.

Director: John Butler

Starring: Fionn O’Shea, Nicholas Galitzine, Andrew Scott, Moe Dunford, Michael McElhatton

Streaming Service: Netflix

As Pride month draws to a close, it seems like the right time to recommend a film involving an LGBTQ+ character, and made by a queer filmmaker. As a straight, cisgender man, I am hardly the authority on Pride and LGBTQ+ issues, but it seems to me that it is important to remember when discussing queer cinema that this is not a one-size-fits-all situation. It is helpful, perhaps, that services like Netflix have LGBTQ+ sections on their websites, helping to highlight often quite small, independent films that might have otherwise got lost in the shuffle and pushed way down your homepage. Nevertheless, we must remember that ‘gay’, like ‘female’ or ‘Black’, is not a genre. 

There are films that do tell the specific, vital, and necessary story of what it’s like to be queer and the struggles LGBTQ+ people face, like the tough, unflinching ‘conversion therapy’ drama The Miseducation of Cameron Post on Netflix. There’s also those that celebrate the campaigners and history-makers who fought for LGBTQ+ equality, like the big-hearted, joyous Pride, now available on Amazon Prime. But there are also films that focus not just on the joys and difficulties of being LGBTQ+, but that simply involve these people in their stories, rather than focusing on their ‘otherness’. We should aim for a state of affairs where the fact a film has an LGBTQ+ character is not always its main distinguishing feature.

My actual pick for this edition of Streaming’s Hidden Treasures, is Handsome Devil, which is currently available to stream on Netflix. Directed by John Butler and showcasing winning performances from Nicholas Galitzine and Fionn O’Shea (better known as the insufferable Jamie from Normal People), Handsome Devil is such a sweet, heartfelt film that it’s very hard not to love.

It is one of those movies that does a good job of balancing feel-good warmth with a necessary grit and pain. The characters’ lows are shown in enough detail and with enough emotion that we really appreciate and share in their highs. The characters in question here are Ned (O’Shea) and Conor (Galitzine), two pupils at an Irish private boarding school reportedly modelled on Butler’s own Blackrock College.

The pair are both outsiders in their own ways. Ned has been at the school some time and has been marked out as an ‘other’ worthy of abuse by his classmates. Short, slight, and with a shock of dyed orange hair, Ned looks decidedly out of place in his rugby-obsessed school. His lack of aptitude for the sport, and his general difference, have led to him being labelled as ‘gay’ and put on the receiving end of a lot of homophobic abuse.

Ned manages to escape the torment of his peers, led by the aptly-named Weasel, in his dorm, where he is the only boy with a room to himself. That’s until Conor arrives. A new boy at the school and with all the apprehension that brings, Conor is, unlike Ned, quickly accepted into the fold. His obvious talent for throwing a ball around has marked him out as a prize possession for the school, and earns him immediate clout with the rest of the boys.

Despite being positioned at opposite ends of the social spectrum by everyone around them, Ned and Conor are actually quite similar. They slowly bond over a love of music, a sense of difference, and a desire to indulge in culture and emotion without being ridiculed for it. They are of course aided in this by a kind and inspirational teacher, played here by the wonderful Andrew Scott. Known for the screen-searing intensity of his performances in Sherlock and Fleabag, Scott tones it down a bit here, but loses none of the charisma and complexity that are his trademark.

From this set-up the film is at once predictable and surprising. The story of friendship it tells is a familiar one, and tonally this follows a well-worn structure. However, the film’s examination of LGBTQ+ characters and their experiences is different from what you might expect, not taking the clichéd path and making some statements that other films might have missed.

Throughout Handsome Devil, Butler exposes the persistent, ignorant, and overtly aggressive homophobia that not only exists in, but is encouraged by, some cultures and systems, but does so always with one eye on the funnier, warmer side of his story. This is an ode to the high-school outsider done well, and depicts the power of male friendship in a quite lovely way.

With my Pride picks here I have focussed a lot on cisgender stories and, whilst I don’t want to indulge in ‘one film for every identity’ tokenism, I do want to give a mention to Sean Baker’s Tangerine. There is a growing selection of acclaimed films to pick from that show gay and lesbian romance, many of them available to stream, but there are still very few works that depict trans characters, and even fewer still that use trans actors in the lead roles.

Tangerine is one of the ‘even fewer’ and should be praised for it. Although not technically available on a streaming service, the film costs just 99p to rent on Amazon. That’s about a third of a cup of coffee, and in return you’ll get a film that feels genuinely fresh and distinctive in a way very few other works can claim. Its story of two transgender sex workers (played with bags of humour and heart by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor), one on the warpath against a cheating boyfriend, the other much calmer in her approach, gives us protagonists that are too often neglected by the cinema.

Then in filmmaking terms, Tangerine is bold and experimental to great effect. Shot using an iPhone 5 and lens adapters, it has a docu-drama look to it, but also features a prominent soundtrack and stylised aesthetics, in a rare combination that falls just the right side jarring. It’s fresh, it’s funny, and at times it’s heartbreaking. A properly unique gem.

Andrew Young