Glasgow Film Festival reviews: Handsome Devil, All This Panic, My Life As A Courgette, The Age of Shadows

Fionn OShea as Ned, a gay teen with friendship problems
Fionn OShea as Ned, a gay teen with friendship problems
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This year’s Glasgow Film Festival got off to a lightweight start on Wednesday with the UK premiere of Handsome Devil (**), a chaste coming-of-age tale about a gay teens wlearning to be true to themselves in a rugby-obsessed private school in Ireland.

Starring Fionn O’Shea as Ned, a bullied child who thinks he’s smarter than his casually homophobic classmates, the film revolves around his difficult friendship with new roommate Connor (Nicholas Golitzine), whose status as the rugby team’s new star player is complicated by his determination to keep his own sexuality secret.

While there’s no denying writer/director John Butler’s semi-autobiographical sophomore feature has a nice idea at its core and a positive message to impart, its vanilla presentation and non-specific period setting (the absence of mobile phones and prominence of Suede posters on Ned’s wall suggest early 1990s) doesn’t really do it any favours in terms of giving it an identity of its own – ironic, really, given Ned is scalded at one point by his new English teacher for plagiarising song lyrics in an essay. The film’s one bright spark is Andrew Scott’s arrival as said English teacher. Embracing the inspirational teacher trope, he brings the movie to life whenever he’s on screen.

A much more audacious and authentic portrait of teen life can be found in All This Panic (****), which gets its Scottish premiere at the festival this weekend. Following a group of Brooklyn teenage girls over a three-year period as they negotiate that intense, tricky transition from mid-teens to legal adulthood, it’s a brilliant, funny, witty and wise documentary from photographer-turned-director Jenny Gage. Along with her partner/cinematographer Tom Betterton, she films her subjects in artful close-ups using shallow-depth-of-field to both intensify the insularity of their world at this time in their lives and enhance the bonds of friendship that provide each of them with crucial support.

What’s remarkable is how raw and vulnerable and funny and honest the girls are in front of the camera – and how much empathy the film generates for them as they grapple with various issues related to their sexuality, their families and their futures. It never feels exploitative, just nurturing. By the end you’ll just want to give them a big hug and tell them everything is going to be alright.

My Life As a Courgette (****) also offers a tender and heartbreaking portrait of childhood, this time in animated form. One of this year’s Oscar nominees for animated feature, French director Claude Barras’ stop-motion marvel (which gets another screening at the festival today) counts Girlhood and Tomboy director Céline Sciamma as its screenwriter, who brings a wonderfully judged sensitivity and wit to a delicate tale of childhood resilience in the face of potentially traumatic events.

Its hero is a neglected boy who has been nicknamed Courgette by his alcoholic mother. Her accidental death early in the film results in him being sent to an orphanage, where he meets a band of misfits with similarly troubled histories. Reminiscent of Coraline and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox, but it’s full of its own idiosyncrasies, the film has a very light touch in its treatment of all of this: it understands how capture the anxiety of childhood, but also its vibrancy and its joys.

The Age of Shadows (****) offers a distinct change of pace. The latest from South Korean genre-hopper Kim Jee-woon sees the director of A Tale of Two Sisters and the underrated gangster film A Bittersweet Life delivering typically high-octane and beautifully orchestrated set-pieces, this time in the service of an espionage drama set during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1920s. Revolving around a morally conflicted police captain (Song Jang-ho) charged with infiltrating the Korean resistance, the convoluted story takes a while to get to grips with, but once the action kicks in, it’s frequently dazzling – and fairly extreme.

There’s more extremity in Dark Night (***), the title of which deliberately echoes Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies: Tim Sutton’s film is a strange and unsettling exploration of alienation inspired by the mass shooting in a Colorado multiplex during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. News reports of the actual shooting play in the background of scenes, which are presented partly as a documentary about America’s disconnected youth, partly as a deliberately banal, Elephant-style dramatisation of a day in the life of several ordinary people whose fates are destined to be intertwined by a loner with too little empathy and too much access to high-powered firearms.

More video installation than narrative feature, it’s a chilling movie, but perhaps too abstract to really nail the pathology that makes these tragedies such a regular occurrence in American life.