As lesser films cheaply attempt to capitalize on “nerd” subcultures for nothing but a gimmicky sense of quirk, movies like Clay Liford’s Slash live, breathe and embrace alternative lifestyles. Liford’s vision is admirably honest and passionately open, embracing an unshackled generation with open, accepting arms. As social dialogue channels continue to open, children are given more freedom to express themselves through identity, no longer hiding true feelings like prisoners in a windowless basement. This is the rallying cry for “weirdos,” a love-note to the “unaccepted,” and a denouncement of “strange” that leads through experimentation – less a roadmap, and more a chorus of voices chanting “you’re not alone.” Because you’re not, and no one should be.
MTV alum Michael Johnston stars as Neil, a stereotypical introvert who writes erotic fan-fiction about his favorite sci-fi franchise, Vanguard. In the fictional series, a hunky hero conquers intergalactic missions, but in Neil’s stories, encounters usually end in a tangle of sweaty limbs and far too much prose. For obvious reasons, Neil keeps his hobby a secret until some bitchy classmates start passing around his private notebook.
Everyone sees the stories as perverse and sick, except for Julia (Hannah Marks), a fellow fan-fic writer far more entrenched in the online world of “Slash” – a genre of fan fiction that focuses on interpersonal attraction and sexual relationships between fictional characters of the same sex. Through Julia’s persuasion, Neil starts being heralded as one of the hottest up-and-coming Vanguard Slash writers around, but can Neil set his anxious fears aside and accept his life less chosen?
The beauty of Slash is that Liford crafts a story about two characters who care immensely for one another, in any form. Both Julia and Neil navigate bi-sexual urges that attract them to both genders, hitting upon a raw, free-wheeling innocence that transcends definition. Neil has an encounter with a much-older veteran Con-goer (played by Michael Ian Black), while Julia chats up Neil’s sister immediately after almost kissing Neil – but there’s never any judgement. Both actors build this wonderful feeling of curious innocence around their sexual preferences, much like they do for the entire culture of Slash fan-fiction (vivid descriptions and all). Liford avoids leaning on obvious stereotypes or inherent awkwardness, which leads to a natural exploration of feelings that never once suggest “shame” should be involved.
Liford does right by letting us into an unknown circle of internet fandom, avoiding cliches and easy characterizations. Preconceived nothings most certainly exist thanks to the internet’s inherently skeevy atmosphere, but through the eyes of Neil, we’re accepted into a foreign lard. Slash isn’t about making crude sex jokes about perverts and whatnot – the film explores coming-of-age in the most ambiguous arena imaginable. There’s no bias when exposing Slash community circles, just a story and characters inhabiting an unfamiliar world.
Johnston and Hannah Marks establish a typical rom-com repertoire as many unlikely lovers have in the past, but their chemistry is progressively undeniable. Marks begins the corruption of Johnston’s mousy lead hero, and loves torturing him (positively) along the way. Feelings are hidden between the two (even though it’s a bit obvious to viewers), and a questionable cat-and-mouse game kickstarts because we’re never quite sure where attractions are focused at any given moment.
It’s kind of a next-level relationship dissection in that sense, because Julia and Neil aren’t traversing feelings of only the same-sex, yet none of that ends up mattering because we care more about their instant connection than we do sexual desires. Johnston plays the nerd arc well, taking each emotional wallop in-stride (with ample awkwardness), while Marks enchants us like a post-punk, Gothic Siren, who can’t hide her open heart no matter how nonchalant she tries to act.
A few high school scenes do run a more generic route, and Liford’s message sometimes rings louder than Neil’s actions on-screen, but the sexual awakenings in Slash are of a joyously provocative – and important – nature. Sure, there are flashy sci-fi cutaways that turn into sexy Vanguard bone-sessions (represented daydreams about Neil’s writing), yet this is still a movie about tolerance and acceptance. Self-worth and living in your own world, because it makes YOU happy. That’s a message worth preaching, and thankfully, Liford’s film doesn’t waste such a generationally-charged story about love in all aspects. Loving what you do, loving who you are, loving those who care – and most importantly – loving the world around you. Whatever world it may be.
You'll want to call Slash a "romantic comedy," but that wouldn't do justice to all the social norm blurring that's more about important relationships than a goofy love story.