“Handsome Devil” by John Butler is set in a rugby-mad Irish boarding school, throwing a spotlight on teenage male friendships. It will be shown this March 24 at the Garden State Film Festival. 

The Garden State Film Festival has been a safe-landing place for films from Ireland for several years now. Its founder, Diane Raver, has always had a soft spot in her heart for all things Irish.

“The Garden State Film Festival,” Raver told IrishCentral, “prides itself on presenting the best of Independent films from around the globe. ‘Handsome Devil’ is an absolutely stunning film of Ireland, the rugby culture, and redemption. It is everything we founded this festival to present to our audience.

Handsome Devil Trailer

John Butler’s new Handsome Devil Movie looks at Irish rugby schools and young male friendships. It's set to be a hit at the Garden State Film Festival this month! Read more here - http://irsh.us/2DOfwal

Posted by IrishCentral.com on Friday, March 23, 2018

“Of course, the Jersey Shore is affectionately known as the ‘Irish Riviera’ due to the large population of Irish inhabitants, but more importantly the Irish Film Board is one of the best film loads in the world. This ensures that filmmakers can produce wonderful films like ‘Handsome Devil’ It is our greatest honor and privilege to do so.”

"Handsome Devil" was written and directed by John Butler and filmed in Dublin. It’s set in a secondary school which is a madhouse for rugby. It centers on two protagonists, Ned, an openly gay nerd who cares nothing about rugby, and his new roommate, Conor, a star rugby player and a recent transfer who promises to bring rugby glory to the school. Unlike Ned, Conor is still in the closet, but despite their social differences, a close friendship develops, then is destroyed, and finally, redeemed.

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"Handsome Devil" writer and director John Butler.

"Handsome Devil" writer and director John Butler.

“Handsome Devil,’” John Butler told IrishCentral, “is basically my answer to the John Hughes films I grew up loving, ‘Dead Poets Society’ and ‘Election,’ all those coming-of-age high school films.

“The idea is that kids are emotionally more open and accepting when they are young, but then they have cynicism bred into them by their environments. This film, unlike ‘Dead Poets Society’ where the adults are these pillars of wisdom, I wanted there to be a weakness in the adults and strength among the young people.

“Plus, it’s partly autobiographical in terms of the characters, not so much the events that happen. I’m gay and I’m really into sports, just as I was as a kid. It was hard to reconcile those two parts of myself. So, the inspiration for the character of Conor came from there.

“And I’m also a very pretentious fan of music, so that’s where the inspiration for Ned came from. It was pretty much two sides of myself and I made it as a way to recognize myself and bring these two sides back together.”

Andrew Scott in "Handsome Devil."

Andrew Scott in "Handsome Devil."

Butler got three fantastic, sensitive performances out of Fionn O’Shea (as Ned), Nicholas Galitzine (as Conor), and Andrew Scott as the English teacher, Mr. Sherry.

“I had many people in mind for parts when they were written,” said Butler, “such as how Andrew Scott’s character was written with him in mind. Then when it comes to Nick and Fionn, they hadn’t met before but got on really well. We did a lot of work beforehand that allowed them to bond. It was a really good experience with the intention of making this a buddy film and paying respect to the idea of male friendship.

“I was lucky with the smaller parts in that it’s really just asking friends to do a day’s work here and there. I looked for terrific actors to fill out the cast, which I think is very important in a film. If you see interesting people in all those little parts, it makes the film complete. I think you also have to cast the people who are most likely to give you that performance, people you can work in tandem with rather than forcing a performance out of them. Working with guys like Andrew Scott, Peter McDonald, and Mo Dunford, they are all terrific actors who are buying into what you’re trying to do, adding to it, and then making it better.”

Except for Andrew Scott, who has gained from fame in the U.S. from playing Moriarty in the British series ”Sherlock” on BBC-TV, most of the actors are unknown to American audiences. Americans are just beginning to discover what a deep, rich and vast acting talents there are in Ireland.

Irish favorites Ardal O'Hanlon (far left) and Amy Huberman (far right) in "Handsome Devil."

Irish favorites Ardal O'Hanlon (far left) and Amy Huberman (far right) in "Handsome Devil."

When asked if there will be more Liam Neesons and Saoirse Ronans coming out of Ireland soon to international acclaim, Butler did not hesitate: “Absolutely! There is a certain confidence in Irish film that exists now, and Ireland has a vast number of very talented actors, and I think we’ll start seeing more and more of them in the international arena!”

Although there is not the stigma of doing a film about homosexuality in Ireland like there may have been a generation ago, I wondered if Butler had any hesitation doing a film which has a central theme of homosexuality?

“I feel it was really important to tell this kind of story, to portray the experiences I was seeing growing up. I grew up in a rigidly binary world where masculine traits were those represented in sport. For me growing up, it seemed like it was impossible to be both,” he said.

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Fionn O'Shea in "Handsome Devil."

Fionn O'Shea in "Handsome Devil."

“This film stems from that memory, and I think it has something to say in 2017, because obviously as we all know there are so few ‘out’ players in sport. Currently, there aren’t any ‘out’ players at the peak of their careers in premier soccer or rugby union. Male team sports particularly seem to suffer from this lack of representation.

“We’ve come on hugely with marriage equality passing in Ireland a few years ago, but the rigidity of this stuff, this choice is being made when kids are in school and this ‘It gets better’ is too late. It needs to be addressed when kids are in school.

“If you buy into this idea of your orientation as an identity, then your identity is formed so early in your life. Having a role model of an openly gay sports player as a young person would have been huge for me. I’ve seen how useless these binary definitions are and I just felt like I needed to push that idea around and examine why it is we are still in that position in the sport.”

So, how was the film received in Ireland? “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it now,” said Butler. “I was really nervous about premiering the movie in Ireland. I still live here, so it was unavoidable to be nervous, but I think the response has been amazing and audiences have really taken to the film.”

Except for a mention of the Garda and a few “eejits” tossed around, this film could have taken place anywhere and IrishCentral wondered if that was intentional on Butler’s part?

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The rugby team in "Handsome Devil."

The rugby team in "Handsome Devil."

“In ‘Handsome Devil,’” he said, “we’re telling a school story that isn’t necessarily an exploration of what it is to be Irish as much as it is an exploration of what it is to be young. Irish film is evolving to a place where our confidence as storytellers transcends Irishness and the Irish experience. These films aren’t just about Irishness. I think we’re just making films for the world, and I think that’s the big change that's happened in the last five or six years in our Irish filmmaking community.”

In 2017 the Garden State Film Festival received an international award from U.K. based TMT News for “Best East Coast Film Festival.” The GSFF was born in 2002 after a chance encounter in a Sea Girt, New Jersey grocery store by film industry veteran Diane Raver and the well-known Hollywood actor Robert Pastorelli.

Through their deep ties to Hollywood, Pastorelli and Raver were able to bring an all-encompassing event to the State of New Jersey. It premiered in 2003 and was immediately deemed a huge success. Since that time, industry notables such as Glenn Close, Frank Vincent, Batman producer Michael Uslan, Austin Pendleton, Kurtwood Smith, James Gandolfini, Budd Schulberg, Clarence Clemons, Bruce Springsteen, Lainie Kazan, Diane Ladd, Laura Dern, Bebe Neuwirth, Armand Asante, Sally Struthers and Ed Asner as well as others have lent their support.

“Handsome Devil" will screen as part of the 16th annual Garden State Film Festival when it returns to Asbury Park March 22-25 at The Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel Kingsley Room on Saturday, March 24, at 6:15 pm. For more information: Email: info@gsff.org; Phone: 877-908-7050; Website: www.gsff.org; #GSFF.

Dermot McEvoy is the author of the "The 13th Apostle: A Novel of Michael Collins and the Irish Uprising" and "Our Lady of Greenwich Village," both now available in paperback, Kindle and Audio from Skyhorse Publishing. He may be reached at dermotmcevoy50@gmail.com. Follow him at www.dermotmcevoy.com. Follow The 13th Apostle on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/13thApostleMcEvoy/