In Irish writer/director John Butler’s all-boys boarding school, rugby was compulsory, but his true passion was for soccer, a sport he still plays with gay and inclusive club the Dublin Devils. As a young, closeted man, there was a kind of peace to be found on the pitch, where he could throw himself into the rules of the game, but as with any ‘role,’ it was only one side of what made him unique. “I was also quite effete, into music, withdrawn and cynical,” he laughs.
His debut feature Handsome Devil will screen as a special surprise session at this year’s Melbourne Queer Film Festival before opening nationally on May 4th. It tackles this complexity by divvying up elements of his youthful personality between its two protagonists, Ned (Fionn O’Shea) and Connor (Nicholas Galitzine).
“I’m 50 per cent Ned, 50 per cent Connor,” Butler reveals. “I was very into sport as a kid and I’m gay, and for a long time I had a really hard time reconciling those two. I feel like Ned represents my ego in a way, and then my ID is represented by Connor, the guy who could play football and express himself in that way without fear and find a place for him on the pitch where all those doubts and ambiguities and uncertainties were suspended for as long as the game was in play.”
Ned sports Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth hairdo, plays guitar and prominently displays the ambiguously queer, androgynous kiss of Suede’s debut album cover on his boarding room wall. Similarly introverted new boy Connor is significantly more buff, and invades this sanctuary when the pair are forced to share a room. The handsome jock left his previous school under a mysterious cloud and they eventually bond over their solitary natures, even as the rugby team eagerly embraces Connor’s sporting prowess.
If the set-up suggests a straightforward teen romantic coming out comedy, then Butler’s Handsome Devil will surprise audiences with its platonic nature. Both outsiders, Ned and Connor come to depend on one another as a team, one that’s pressured by the expectations of their classmates, as well as unbending notions of masculinity.
“In writing and shooting this film, I never operated with the clear assumption that Ned was gay, or that he wasn’t straight,” Butler says. “I’m obsessed with male friendship and I really wanted to respect that idea that they could be allies. I’m fascinated by male friendship, by pushing the limits of that and examining how men are supposed to behave in each other’s company and the ways in which we’re not supposed to express things to each other, you know?”
Facing external forces, Ned and Connor’s union begins to collapse as they build their own internal walls, with sexuality coming into play. Further complicating matters, Sherlock star Andrew Scott - who arrives as a new teacher in the English department - has his own secrets to protect too.
“The part was written with Andy in mind, which isn’t a good idea because sometimes actors aren’t able to do it, but I always considered him to be the perfect choice as a teacher, because teachers are performers and they also have to conceal who they are,” Butler says. “He’s a guy who’s being trammelled by his world of work, but Andrew understands how to hold the comedy and drama high enough so that it’s always a bit funny and it’s always a bit serious. I love that idea of things being funny and serious at the same time, and he’s the epitome of that as an actor.”
All three roles are ambiguous, and that ambiguity stretches to time and place. There are no smartphones in this story, though that could be a school rule, and there’s also a quirky, Wes Anderson-like glow. “It feels like a fairy tale in a way. Young people see the world in such a heightened way; their senses are at their widest aperture,” Butler says. “You absorb books and music and art and everything cultural with such intensity. I wanted to try and replicate that feeling but also try and suggest the world was made up of two colours really, so there’s a huge amount of yellow and blue and that was a way of suggesting it’s a binary world that kids are forced to come of age in.”
Fairy tale it may be, but it’s a tough one, more Brothers Grimm than Disney, where the word “gay” is used as a weapon. “Our most important focus as a community is the members who are most vulnerable, and that’s invariably young people who have no autonomy but to live under the roofs of parents who don’t know what the fuck is going on with them, that have to deal with teachers who hate them for no reason,” Butler insists.
“People who tell you that your school days are the best days of your lives are such idiots,” he adds. “They are such shit days and I just think it does a kid no favours when adults say, ‘you’ll look back on this fondly.’ Fuck that.”
Handsome Devil screens at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival on Monday, March 27. Book tickets here, then the film releases nationally on May 4.