Hannah Marks and Michael Johnston lead Clay Liford’s wonderfully warm sci-fi dramedy.
Explorative. Confusing. Transformative. Banal. Awkward. Who doesn’t remember his or her teenage years and the various ups and downs that characterize them? Cinematic history is not exactly short on narratives that stage the universal voyage of introspective youngsters who find a way to blossom, one way or another. Even so, in the hands of writer-director Clay Liford and the rest of his team, Slash offers a refreshing spin on tried-and-true coming-of-age staples.
The very opening is a sign of inbound creativity. Dropped on the remote planet of Milliarcha V a heroic defender comes to the rescue of an enslaved populace. Just as his climactic showdown with the tyrannical Kragon begins to unfold things take an unexpectedly sexy turn and fisticuffs make way for frisky fondling. Welcome to the imagination of Neil, delicately acted by Michael Johnston, who instantly sells viewers on his character’s wide-eyed naivety.
An otherwise timid high school student with a strange hobby, Neil is passionate about the written word and invents all manner of fantastical scenarios that follow the adventures of sci-fi action hero Vanguard. Straightforward stuff, were it not for the fact that Neil only writes slash, an erotically charged form of fan fiction in which same sex relations are the norm. Never overused to the point where they become gimmicky, these softcore erotic scenes pass as well-staged intermezzos that colorfully energize the movie’s overall aesthetic and offer a visual rejoinder to Neil’s internal urges and thriving insecurities.
They also never detract from the film’s central dynamic between Neil and Julia, a slightly older slash devotee herself who comes into the young male ingénue’s life following the unintended exposure of his fantasy to fellow classmates – a creative ‘outing’ that is met with ridicule and derision. Far more assured and brazen yet deftly played with a hint of personal vulnerability by a striking Hannah Marks, she takes Neil under her wing and encourages him to publish his prose on an online forum strictly intended for adults.
When invited to do a live read at a regional comic con Julia takes Neil with her on a journey that checks taboo at the door. Liford traces the unlikely duo’s uncommon connection as it blossoms into friendship and more in a manner that is keenly attuned to both the fickle nature of human relationships in general and the impetuousness of teenage romance in particular.
Whenever Slash could stumble and dive headfirst into the clichés of lesser films his pen proves sufficiently packed with humor or wit to layer the narrative. A particularly risky nuance that aptly signals the dangers of information age anonymity comes by way of the inclusion of Michael Ian Black’s character. As website moderator Dennis, a kindhearted and only slightly creepy adult geek, he takes a special interest in pretend grown-up Neil, keen on extending their online rapport into real-life hook-up. Liford, aided by his capable cast, transforms a risqué, potentially gratuitous, encounter into the most poignant scene in the entire film, one that expertly conveys the fish-out-of-water confusion of an outsider who yearns for love and affection in whatever form.
The compliment to Johnston’s and Black’s acting sensibilities should be extended to the chemistry between other cast members as well. Slash doesn’t reinvent the traditional structure of the self-discovering teen movie, but the piercing honesty and believability that emanates from Johnston’s and Marks’ confident interplay is such as to keep audiences enrapt for the duration of the ride. Their tender portrayal makes the film remarkably resonant on an emotional level, ensuring its warmth lingers for days to come. Even minor characters like Julia’s pregnant best friend Martine (Jessie Ennis), her douchebag on-again-off-again boyfriend Mike (Peter Vack), and Neil’s father Blake (Robert Longstreet in a very affectionate turn) are written with sufficient spunk to allow the cast to show off their acting chops.
Mature in its approach though never explicit, Slash is an edgy, thoughtful coming-of-age fantasy that sees multiple passions, both on page and off, explored. Slash fiction proves a surprisingly thankful conduit for narratively charting the gender anxieties and predilections of bi-curious teens in the midst of sexual awakening. In its treatment of both subject matter and subculture the film strikes a perfect balance: delicate and respectful yet never saccharine or disingenuously sentimental.
To a triumphant tune courtesy of Lee Hazlewood Slash finally culminates as a prime and proud vanguard of outsider culture, one that celebrates any number of hard-to-place, would-be misfits in an inclusive embrace that is grand and deeply impassioned.
The film will be available to watch via iTunes on Tuesday, December 6. It will open in select U.S. theaters and On Demand on Friday, December 9.