Michael Johnston and Hannah Marks in Slash (Gravitas Ventures)

Michael Johnston and Hannah Marks in Slash (Ellie Ann Fenton/Gravitas Ventures)

Clay Liford, who directed Wuss and Earthling (and whose cinematography credits include Gayby, perhaps the greatest low-budget queer comedy ever) brings us Slash, a quirky teen film that tackles the quirkiest phenomenon to come out of the digital age: slash fiction.

Michael Johnston (MTV’s Teen Wolf) stars as Neil, a boy so straightlaced he won’t even lie about his age online. He’s a sci-fi and fantasy nerd who lets his freak flag fly by writing slash fiction featuring the star of his favorite sci-fi novels, Vanguard (played expertly tongue-in-cheek by Tishuan Scott). Neil’s stories feature Vanguard engaging in raunchy action taking on all comers: male, female, alien, or what have you. Within the film’s first five minutes, Neil’s notebook is stolen by a classmate and shared with his peers, but that’s just the beginning. Instead of focusing on Neil’s ostracism in his high school, Slash explores Neil forging a new identity for himself among the slash fiction community.

He meets Julia, the kind of girl who paves her own way and doesn’t give a damn about high school politics. She sees that Neil has a talent for writing erotica, and she goads him into publishing his work on the website where she posts her own erotica. Practically overnight, the site’s moderator invites Neil to a nearby comic con to read his work at a special event for slash writers.

The site administrator, Denis (Thomas Ian Black), clearly has ulterior motives for Neil as the two flirt through texts and the site’s instant message feature. Denis persistently tries to get Neil to hook up with him at the con. While his erotic writing may seem to veer toward men, Neil, a very inexperienced 15-year-old, is not ready to claim his sexuality as being this or that yet. In fact, his slash fiction is his way of trying to figure that out for himself. Anyone who has gone through a similar sexual back and forth will relate to how Neil’s stories provide that function.

Now, as for Neil’s stories. The cutaways to his imaginings are undoubtedly the highlight of this movie. They are fun, over-the-top sexual romps that look appropriately like they could be Babylon 5 episodes, with full-on crappy CGI and makeup. What’s also fun about the film are all the cameos by character actors who film and TV nerds should recognize: John Ennis, Angela Kinsey, Missi Pyle, and Sarah Ramos.

As corny as this film sounds, it should be commended for being brazen enough to go full weird teen, as opposed to the recent The Edge of Seventeen, also about an awkward teenager, although not quite as far out on the fringe as the kids in this film. Slash is for those who identified more with Ghostworld than American Pie.

While none of the actors are going to win any awards for this film (Michael Ian Black is especially phoning it in), the two leads show promise. Johnston is quite charming and plays Neil with an aw-shucks quality that is hard not to like, and Hannah Marks adds whimsy to the jaded, cynical Julia. The two play very well off each other. There are several some laugh-out-loud moments, care of these gifted young actors.

Slash could have had a little more tongue-in-cheek, though. Comic cons are just waiting for the Christopher Guest treatment, since it’s a little grating how Neil and Julia take their writing so seriously. Of course, being teenagers, everything is so serious to them. The film is actually careful to underline how these two find artistic expression through slash fiction, while some of the older writers, who have been at it longer, either do not appreciate slash as an art form or have simply lost their passion.

Certainly not enough films feature climaxes set at literary readings. Wonder Boys, which similarly celebrated and poked fun of the literary world, is the only film that comes to mind. That’s some good company to be in. As great as The Edge of Seventeen is, Slash stands out as this year’s film for the true teenage outcast.

Written and Directed by Clay Liford
Released by Gravitas Ventures
USA. 100 min. Not rated
With Michael Johnston, Hannah Marks, Deborah Abbott, Laura Bailey, Courtney Bandeko, and Michael Ian Black