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”?
I first saw this little movie years ago, and my mind is BLOWN that Ned is never confirmed as gay. Upon a rewatch, I’m actually quite convinced now that he isn’t. You’re rocking my world, Will. Thanks for adding to our blog’s film and TV reservoir!
There’s certainly debate about the wisdom in watching “gay movies,” and we may even have a podcast coming soon to further discuss that topic. But this movie doesn’t have a single sexual scene, and I found its focus on friendship and authenticity a delight.
I completely agree. It’s nice to see a film about friendship and authenticity. Thank you for sharing your review. It inspired me to watch it today, which was great because I’m in an ice storm today. Probably the best movie I’ve seen that deals with homosexuality.
I had previously looked at clips of this movie and had no idea what it was really about. I watched it again today because of your post Will and really liked it! Here are some things that stood out to me:
Ned – He is resilient and yeah we don’t ever know if he experiences SSA, but he puts up with a lot. One of my favorite things he learns is that humiliation/bulling is tough, but nothing is as bad as loosing or being betrayed by a friend.
Connor – Great portrayal of how many guys with SSA hold it in and how destructive that is. I like how we see that deep down what he really wants is to be a part of the team. Like a lot of guys with SSA he struggles with emotion control, father/gender wounds and anxiety. I believe there are a lot of closeted guys out there that go to extreme measures to hide SSA and this movie shows that is not healthy.
Father wounds – Connor and Ned both have them and you can see what it does to them. It pushes Connor to a gay bar to escape his feelings and Ned to put up with a lot of things he shouldn’t.
Authenticity – There is power in not putting on a show and in being the real you. When we are our real selves, that gives people the opportunity to love us for who we really are and for us to defeat shame. I like what Ned says about how we all have the one thing we are ashamed of, but with the help of a good friend – it goes away!
Vulnerability – A lot of the tough scenes happen in the locker room. This is a place where guys are truly vulnerable and naked with each other. Its also here that healing and acceptance can take place, when they realize they all have their own s*** and need to come together as a team. We often build up “Berlin walls” to stay away from what we fear, but we can take those down as we find connection and make ourselves vulnerable and that can be healing.
Worth – Connor’s father, the coach, Ned’s parents, Walter the headmaster, etc. all place the worth of the school and the individual on an outward skill of rugby or other accomplishments. What really matters is who you are and being authentic, not if you are good at sports or being better at things than others.
“It gets better” – We all have things to work on in our lives and have to keep pushing forward pursuing more vulnerability and more authenticity and coming together as a team with others. That’s a process and takes time. Sometimes there are people a little further down the road that can help us but we are all on a journey.
Anger – Ned learns its okay to punch a guy in the face when he is being a jerk. Anger does serve a purpose, but shouldn’t be used to betray a friend and he regrets calling out Connor.
Lord of the Flies – homosexuality is a problem among men and occurs when natural desires and needs for friendship, brotherhood, teamwork fall apart – often due to survival or base instincts and fear. There are a lot of themes here that are also in the Lord of the Flies.
Running – Ned realizes the power of running, if you are running in the right direction. Mr. Sherry and others learn you can’t keep running away from your problems and need to face them.
Friendship – Ned, Connor and the rest of the team learn that friendship is needed to be a real team and often what we as humans really hunger for. I like the scene at the end when Ned and Connor finally embrace as friends and then everyone else rallies around them. First it is Ned that helps Connor get back to his senses, then the both of them stand up for what is right, and eventually everyone else is able to do the same.
Great story…I’ve just watched it… Thanks for the tip, Will
It’s probably asking too much, but when I was reading your description, I was thinking, “Naw, the jock will be the gay one, cuz they’ll think that’s clever and subversive.” I was disappointed to be right. I am not trying to poo-poo a movie I haven’t seen, but I am becoming increasingly aware that there is a massive trend to sexualize every form of male bonding.
It started as a social media joke in the form of “bromances”, but there are now all kinds of TikToks where guys joke about being secretly gay. Or gay for fun with their friends. The new idea for Robin and Batman is doing this as well. They are at least sparing them from a relationship, but Robin is still going to be gay. This really bothers me in the same way that the sexualization of Luca bothers me. Our culture is squeezing out every form of male-male bond into either a superficial or sexual form. Is it really that hard to portray the need for a close friend which may even manifest in a desire to be physically close to him?
Sorry, this is a sore subject for me. Hug your friends, rest your head on their shoulders, and tell them that you need them in your life. If you don’t, and they get married – you’re going to have a hard time with the heartbreak.