Michael Johnston and Hannah Marks in Clay Liford’s “Slash,” which opens at the IFP Media Center Theater in Dumbo on December 9. | GRAVITAS VENTURES
“Slash,” named for the popular genre of fan fiction, is an extremely likable coming of age comedy-drama. The film, written and directed by Clay Liford, has 15 year-old Neil (Michael Johnston) writing erotic stories about Vanguard (Tishuan Scott) and his same-sex encounters with a Kragon (Lucas Neff) on the planet Milliarcha V. Neil keeps his writing in a private notebook he carries everywhere like a security blanket. When his fellow students at school discover it, Neil is mocked for his M4M fiction, though he has a strong supporter in Julia (Hannah Marks), an artsy bisexual girl who also writes fan fiction.
Neil may write about men kissing and more in his fiction, but that is all fantasy and not based on any of his own experiences. In real life, Neil is a virgin attracted to Julia. He is also curious about Jack (Dalton Phillips), a handsome lead actor in the school play who flirts with him. When Neil sends Jack some of his writing, Jack responds by sharing it and teasing him. However, Julia is more caring and coaches him on how to write using less flowery prose.
When she encourages him to post his work online in an adult fan fiction forum, Neil is hesitant because he does not want to lie about his age. But Julia, ever the instigator, insists, emphasizing that by posting in the forum Neil will join the ranks of slash writers — a symbolic coming out.
Two teens explore fantasy fiction and their own sexuality
Some of the most appealing moments of “Slash” show how Neil learns to embrace his outsider status, not just as a writer, but also as a possibly gay teen. Liford sensitively treats Neil’s social and sexual confusion without making his character a stereotype or a victim — despite the teasing at school from Jack and others. The film ably hits home in delivering its message of not being ashamed of who one is.
One of the more humorous scenes in the film has Neil’s parents, Blake (Robert Longstreet) and Cheryl (Brandy Burre), discovering their son’s erotica online. They offer to help him pursue his interest in writing, and end up embarrassing him not for exploring same-sex themes but rather for his dangling participles. In a surprisingly tender scene, Blake giving Neil dating advice regarding Julia as well as money to attend the upcoming Comic Con with her.
The Comic Con event, which includes a live reading, is the focus of the second half of “Slash.” Neil has become emboldened by the success his work receives on the site, garnering the attention of Denis (Michael Ian Black), a 38-year-old moderating a live reading at the event. While Neil and Denis direct message each other online — Denis sees a kindred spirit (and potential lover) in the hot new writer — Neil quickly feels in over his head in this very adult world.
To its credit, Liford carefully navigates what could become an inappropriate relationship between the two. Neil is initially reluctant to meet Denis at the conference –– until, for his first time, he takes a hit of ecstasy. That leads to Neil kissing Denis, who sits the young man down for a heart-to-heart about what how old he really is and questions of acceptance and self-acceptance, as well. Here, “Slash” is at its best, taking what could have been a very uncomfortable incident and turning it into a teaching moment. A later scene where Neil’s underage status wins him a place among outsiders at the film’s climactic live reading –– when they should have simply embraced him for who his –– is weaker.
Liford wisely keeps Neil and Julia’s sexuality fluid throughout the film, exploring questions of how these two appealing characters grapple with the variety of their desires. Both Johnston and Marks deliver strong performances, and they have a nice chemistry together. It is easy to see why the shy, repressed Neil would fall for the outspoken Julia, but also why Julia is attracted to this sensitive teen who is so different than her other outsider friends. It’s notable that a subplot about a betrayal between the two friends never escalates into something torturous.
“Slash” is winning because it upends expectations. The film is a low-budget charmer, and to observe that Liford may have spent more money on the sets and costumes for the film’s handful of sci-fi fantasy sequences than he did for the real life story is a compliment, not a complaint. The imaginative fantasies of two teens who see themselves as misfits are brought to life sweetly, and that is what makes “Slash” so satisfying.
SLASH | Directed by Clay Liford | Gravitas Ventures | Opens Dec. 9: IFP Media Center Theater, 30 John St., btwn. Pearl & Jay Sts., DUMBO, ifp.org