Fionn O’Shea, left, and Nicholas Galitzine in Handsome Devil (Breaking Glass Pictures)

This Irish film explores the quagmire of sexual politics in an all-boys private school, following the tradition of such films as The History Boys and the cult classic The Chocolate War. Beyond that, Handsome Devil is a welcome anomaly: a coming-out tale that is not preoccupied with sex.

Off-kilter 16-year-old Ned (Fionn O’Shea) goes to a school that prides itself in its rugby team. Ned has been an outcast at school so long that he’s developed the survival tactic of keeping to himself, although it’s clear he has intelligence and talent for days, along with a biting, sardonic wit. He can easily dish out insults to the rugby players that are above their heads, such as his deadpan delivery of “Could you go straight to hell, please?” He does just well enough to make passing grades, but resists overachieving so as not to draw any more attention to himself. Instead of writing for his English assignments, he turns in work that is plagiarized from obscure rock songs he thinks his English teacher won’t ever recognize.

Ned even has a room to himself, which is a lucky strike for his goal to get through the year unharmed. However, on the first day of school, in walks Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), a transfer student and total hunk who is, naturally, assigned to Ned’s room. Ned acts fast by moving their bookcases to the middle of the room, a structure he refers to as the “Berlin Wall.”

Andrew Scott (Sherlock’s Moriarty) plays the new English teacher, Mr. Sherry. On the first day, he gives the boys an uninspired essay assignment (write about one of your relatives—that old chestnut), but he makes the disclaimer that he knows how asinine the assignment is. He then shouts, “Own the dullness,” meaning he hopes the boys will be inspired to make something powerful out of such a seemingly uninspired assignment. So clearly Mr. Sherry is one of those ambitious teachers. And over the course of the year, he provokes the two hesitant roommates into becoming best mates.

While the schoolboys all assume Ned is gay (and the film deserves brownie points for never giving a clear answer on that), the focus shifts to the question of Conor’s sexual identity, and that of Mr. Sherry’s. Writer/director John Butler (The Bachelor Weekend) has constructed a comedy-drama that offers a modernized exploration of sexual identity within an all-male environment.

There is plenty to like about the film.  It often uses a split screen effectively, showing what Ned and Conor are both up to or Conor kicking a field goal from two different angles. The other schoolboys make this “urh” sound whenever they think something is “gay.” Of course, this is an example of taunting, but Butler utilizes it in a way that shows you not just how moronic it is but also how, if you take away the homophobic connotation, it’s actually pretty funny. After the “urh-ing” is introduced, it becomes an Easter egg, popping up in the background throughout the rest of the film.

Homophobia takes its main manifestation in the rugby coach, Pascal (Moe Dunford), that stereotypical über-male who walks into the shower room, slapping players on their bare bums. The way he looks at new boy Conor is questionable. Whether Pascal is looking at him with lust (Galitzine’s pouty lips are undeniably delectable) or if he sees him as the new star player whom he can exploit on the field, neither option is exactly favorable.

Red flags go up when Pascal notices Conor hanging out with his nerdy roommate and Mr. Sherry. To a man like Pascal, the realms of academia and art cannot overlap with the all-important realm of sports. There is, also, the danger in Conor “becoming gay” by spending too much time with these two. (Never mind whether Conor is already gay.) Pascal enlists the team bully to put pressure on Conor by threatening to out him if he doesn’t quit hanging out with Ned and focus on rugby. So now Conor must choose between his new friend and his rugby team.

Handsome Devil deserves praise for its decided lack of eroticism. Too often in these coming-out films the political message is overshadowed by sex. While early on there may have been some furtive glances from Ned to Conor, the film sticks to the high road. This begs the question: Have we finally arrived at a new genre of queer cinema? Family friendly films about queer issues? Wow. Now that’s a noteworthy achievement.

Written and Directed by John Butler
Released by Break Glass Pictures
Ireland. 95 min. Not rated
With Fionn O’Shea, Nicholas Galitzine, Andrew Scott, and Moe Dunford