Self-discovery can be a lot dirtier than most coming-of-age movies care to admit, and “Slash” — Clay Liford’s occasionally flat but charmingly empathetic new film about the burgeoning tradition of erotic fan fiction — refuses to shy away from the hot mess of adolescence.
On the contrary, this sweet peek inside the most subterranean of sub-cultures is just as shy and strange as the awkward teen years that most of us have learned to repress. Even if Liford leaves a bit too much to the imagination (and makes the common genre mistake of writing a lead character who expresses natural confusion through unnatural dullness), “Slash” knows how hard it can be to a navigate the world when you don’t know who you are, or what you like, or the ways in which those two things don’t have to define one another.
Neil (Michael Johnston), for example, has no idea how to define himself. A quiet, introverted freshman at a Texas high school, Neil spends his days gawping at the handsome boy who plays the lead in the school play, and his nights trying to make sense of that attraction and measure how deep it runs. He does that by hunching over the computer in his bedroom and writing irreverent, explicitly homoerotic fan fiction about a strapping space traveler named Vanguard, the hero of a (fictional) series of popular sci-fi novels.
Liford doesn’t miss the chance to bring Neil’s fantasies to low-budget life, shooting a series of charmingly cheap scenes in which Vanguard travels the galaxy, gets licked by every creature in the solar system, and confronts his brawny arch-nemesis with an open-mouthed kiss. It’s not exactly the Bronte sisters — who, we’re told repeatedly, also wrote some fun smut on the side — but Neil’s erotica is charming, sincere, and in search of something important. When his parents find some of it on the kid’s computer, their understated reaction makes for the sweetest moment in this gentle, decidedly low-key saga.
It’s unclear if Neil is aware that he’s participating in a time-honored tradition, or if the words just poured out of him one day, but it isn’t long before he learns that the world is full of slash writers — at least one of them even goes to his school. Her name is Julia (“Southbound” star Hannah Marks), she’s older, at least a little bit more comfortable in her own skin, and seemingly way too confident to become BFF with a gawky kid like Neil… unless, of course, she’s just as desperate to find someone else who speaks her language.
“I bet we’re the only two kids in this entire joint who know about what we know about,” Hanna says to Neil at one point. “It’s kind of special.”
It’s fun to watch their unlikely friendship begin to take shape, especially because neither Julia nor Neil (nor us, for that matter) know where the lines might be drawn between them — she’s trying to figure out who she’s attracted to, and he’s trying to figure out if he’s attracted to anyone at all. Seldom has one of those classic interrupted movie kisses been so suspenseful or ambiguous. And it’s hardly the most harrowing kiss in the film, as our heroes eventually trek to a Comic-Con where they get to share their stuff with the luminaries of their community and experience all sorts of formative moments.
Each of those moments is rich and anxious in its own way, with Marks’ winningly brash and wholly believable performance adding a spark that often rescues the movie from its wet blanket protagonist. Neil is supposed to be unsure of himself (more Julia commentary: “You’re so repressed, your stuff must be good”), but Johnston plays the kid as though he’s completely disappeared into his shell, making it easy to lose interest in him long before his inevitable awakening. Liford doesn’t do quite enough to compensate for his dull lead, tracing the slash-fic world in only the broadest of strokes, when there is clearly so much fertile territory to be explored there.
But the movie means well, and it works because it articulates how, as the world gets smaller, it also gets more stratified. And that’s doubly true of high school. There are still nerds and jocks and all the rest, but those words mean less with every passing day; godspeed to anyone foolish enough to try and remake “The Breakfast Club” in 2016. Life has always come in an infinite variety of flavors, but now that kids are growing up on the internet, watching and even writing about things they’ve never experienced for themselves, it’s easy for young people to start figuring out who they are before they learn how to become it.
“Slash” is much sweeter than it is satisfying, but it smartly observes that the road to adulthood has never been paved, and it makes a convincing enough case that teens shouldn’t be afraid of driving down their detours.
“Slash” is now playing in theaters and on VOD.