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On a remote, dusty red planet, a Vanguard hero with great purpose comes to face off against the Kragon overlord in a fight to the death, his slave girl bound to him in chains. The fight is brutal until something happens that shifts the violence into well, hot guy on guy sex. Cut to black.
Welcome to the mind of Neil (Michael Johnston), a nebbish high school student who spends much of his time in the corners, reading or writing, becoming lost in the worlds these both induce. He has few friends and wants only to be left alone, so when one of his fan fiction notebooks gets in the hands of the student body, it doesn’t bode well. His work only cements what most already want to believe about him. He’s mocked and laughed at in class until one girl named Julia (Hannah Marks) gets hold of it and to his surprise, actually likes it.
Turns out she is not only a fan of this kind of writing, called ‘slash’, an erotic form of fan-fiction art where same sex relationships are a norm, but a writer of it herself, and a good one. Taken by her interest and beguiling look, he discovers she has a lot of her work already posted and the two become close. She opens him up to the subculture (an adults-only online community) and eventually convinces him to join her in a quest to get to a convention where a few select writers can do a live reading of their work. Naturally, the journey there creates a whole new set of opening doors about what they want to be and who they are to each other.
Written and directed by Clay Liford, Slash is an uncommon coming-of-age romance that never overly indulges in the sexually-charged premise but rather delicately allows it to layer the characters in a believable and genuine story. Awkward teenager movies are a copious crop of movies and finding traction in the genre typically means sticking to a safe formula. Liford steers clear of it and yet manages to create a story that is charmingly funny and authentic, while never exploitive. These are experimental times for the characters and Liford establishes a world where things are slightly romanticized but grounded enough to feel true.
All of that hinges on a great script of course but is entirely sold by the work of Johnston and Marks. Johnston plays a timid wallflower, a fifteen-year-old boy who is highly-imaginative yet with only his stories serving as a creative release. He is naive of course and falls into the rabbit’s hole (both figuratively and literally in terms one part of the story) with few handholds and comes to breach a number of important barriers to manhood. Marks is a wonder playing a girl who might superficially seem stereotypical on first contact but comes to define Julia with such magnetism, it’s impossible not to crumble under her spells. She is a girl who compels us into orbit.
There is also Michael Ian Black and Missy Pyle who show up in the second half with Black in a surprisingly affecting moment that could have been bottomless but is instead a vulnerable exposure of a man caught in his own shallows, wanting only to feel something. He is just one of several well-written and performed characters that give a lot of depth to the experience, including Julia’s pregnant best friend (Jessie Ennis) and Neil’s father (Robert Longstreet).
By now, it might sound that there is potential for some uncomfortable moments, and indeed, there are many that are, but never in an callous way. When it cuts to scenes of Neil’s writing come to life, they are appropriately goofy and never anything more than suggestive, as are any other real-life moments where Neil and Julia try to understand their own sexuality. Despite these characters being young, the film is mature in how they are represented, and it handles the complexities of the confusion and heartbreak well.
While there is some familiarity to it all, and there’s no escaping a kind of contrived quirkiness to it, there is a lot to like about Slash, a film that takes a decidedly different take on the genre. Great performances and a warm-hearted approach make this one to watch.
Director: Clay Liford
Writer: Clay Liford
Stars: Michael Johnston, Hannah Marks, Deborah Abbott, Michael Ian Black
Genre: Comedy, Romance