Disclaimer: This movie analysis contains spoilers; if that sort of thing bothers you, please watch the movie first. As of this writing, Handsome Devil is available on Netflix. While everyone has different movie standards, this one will be mostly safe for people. This film does not feature sex or nudity, but it does have crude and possibly triggering language.
Once in a while, I stumble upon a movie or a book that seems very “Side B” for one reason or another (appealing to those LGBT+ persons with a traditional sexual ethic). The book I’ve read — no joke — well over a hundred times is The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis. Tom affectionately called it a “Side B sleeper hit” during one of our Patreon book clubs.
Well, I think the movie Handsome Devil has the potential to fall into that same “Side B sleeper hit” category.
Handsome Devil is a very gay movie, but for once a gay movie not focused on sex or even romance; instead, it leans heavily on themes of vulnerability, authenticity, bullying, trauma, masculinity, and most of all, friendship. It checks all the boxes for a Side B sleeper hit.
What is the setting for this movie? It takes place in Ireland at a boys’ boarding school, one obsessed with sports. Specifically rugby. The film centers on a high school boy, Ned, and his roommate, Conor, the new star of the rugby team.
Ned is artistic, quirky, and definitely an Enneagram Four. Everyone thinks he’s gay, and he’s often made fun of by his classmates and teachers.
Conor is a jock and as outwardly masculine as it gets: good-looking and athletic. Forced to transfer schools under mysterious circumstances, he now rooms with his complete opposite — the boy everyone thinks is a flaming homosexual.
Here is where the movie takes a brilliant turn of events. Lazy writers may have gone the direction of Ned and Conor falling in love, or maybe Ned coming out as Conor learns how to deal with a gay roommate. But this movie doesn’t fall into those familiar tropes.
Instead, we never actually find out if Ned is gay; the movie doesn’t clearly answer that question. The first few times I watched the movie, I kept assuming Ned was gay. But Ned never tells anyone.
That hit me. Because I did the same thing to Ned that everyone else did to me throughout my life: assume my sexuality based on stereotypes.
It is a dangerous thing to assume someone else’s sexuality. Navigating those issues are incredibly complex, and so many people, especially straight people, are arrogant enough to think they know someone else’s sexuality more than that person knows their own sexuality.
Handsome Devil forced me into my biggest pet peeve: assuming someone is gay because of certain characteristics. The movie showed me how easy it is to fall into this trap of judging others.
Even though we never learn if Ned is gay, we do discover that Conor is gay. This masculine, athletic guy is actually incredibly insecure because of his sexuality. This caused him to lash out in anger and even physically hurt others, which we later learn is why he had to transfer schools at the start of the film.
The shame that Conor experiences doesn’t just lead him to uncontrollable anger against his classmates, it also leads him into risky and compulsive behaviours like going to gay bars even though he’s only in high school, putting him in situations of being found out.
Many of us Side B people are in a similar situation as Conor. We may not act as extremely as him, but many of us are in places where it is dangerous for others to know about our attractions.
As a result, we get anxious and angry. We lash out at others, and we build up our defenses. We emphasize our masculinity to make sure we aren’t suspects.
So, how does Conor break out of this cycle of shame and anger? His community helps him out. One person is his English teacher, Dan Sherry (played by the wonderful Andrew Scott of Sherlock). Dan creates an environment of authenticity. One day in class, while catching Ned plagiarizing his homework, Dan shouts at him for the whole class to hear:
“You spend your whole life being someone else; who’s gonna be you?”
Dan also redefines masculinity and success for their rugby-obsessed school, telling the headmaster before a game, “Some boys don’t play rugby. What about those boys?”
In other words, some boys do not fit our rigid definitions of masculinity; what about those boys?
Conor discovers that his teacher is gay and sees in him a healthier version of life, allowing Conor a way to move forward that isn’t filled with anger and shame. A lot of us Side B people lack those kinds of role models, and that makes life difficult for us. Many of us don’t have someone older in our churches who is openly Side B, so who do we look to for a healthier version of life?
The final thing from the film on which I want to focus is the friendship between Conor and Ned. I found it refreshing that their friendship didn’t form over their sexuality, but music. They start spending time listening to music together, eventually playing and singing together.
In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis says that meaningful friendships form around common interests. Those just looking for friends won’t find any. But when we find people with common interests, a bond forms.
We do not hear or see enough stories that feature friendship instead of romance at the center, and we hurt as a result.
This central bond of friendship helps Conor be authentic with his community. Ned does badly hurt Conor in the film, but they reconcile and become a better support for each other.
And when Connor does eventually come out, Ned is by his side.
Many of us are not open with our sexualities to our communities, but we all have that hope that if we do come out, we’ll also have a friend standing with us.
What did you think of Handsome Devil if you’ve seen it? Have you mistakenly assumed someone else’s sexuality, or has someone mistakenly assumed yours? What are some other “Side B sleeper hits”?