by Derek Deskins

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday October 17, 2016


There aren't many directors clamoring to cover the underground world of slash fiction. Its existence as a sub-genre of a sub-genre of genre certainly isn't alerting the world of its presence.

Slash fiction is a product of the Internet, grown from a seed of devoted fandom. It's a world where Harry Potter and Draco translate their animosity into raw sexuality, a realm of boundary pushing and secret desires become flesh. By its very nature it seems to put itself at a distance, a subject of derision by those that so quickly dismiss it by its cover. "Slash" is fully aware of all of these complications and manages to humanize them quite sweetly.

"Slash" follows 15-year-old Neil (Michael Johnston) as he struggles to find his place in high school. Largely a loner, Neil comes alive when he is writing, but it's not the type of writing that most kids his age are doing. He pores over his laptop, spinning yarns of his favorite hero, Vanguard, exploring the galaxy in search of adventure and vigorous sex. When his notebook falls into the wrong hands, he ends up finding a friend that shows him a world that he never imagined.

Films like "Slash" have somewhat of a barrier to entry, even apart from the subject matter. It is a low-budget indie film in the modern sense. I'm not talking your '90s paramount of indie; rather, a world of somewhat stilted dialogue, clearly amateur actors, and staid filmmaking. There is no shine on this surface, and those rough edges can put off plenty of people. Luckily for writer-director Clay Liford, he has some heart, and that is able to break through the straightforward and clichťd storytelling.

This is a film that lives and dies by its primary characters. Neil is shy, awkward, and just generally lost, but Johnston doesn't sacrifice him to the land of quiet solitude. His performance gives bite around the edges, hinting at a level of character development that is just subtle and nuanced enough to lend the film an honesty that elevates it past its many forgotten brethren.

It's not completely clear, though, whether Johnston is doing a great job in the role alone, or if his foil Julia, played by Hannah Marks, is so much more captivating as to make him shine brighter. Marks is in something of a difficult position, as Julia is written a bit heavy handedly, with convictions that waver so often as to seem like anything but. It isn't Marks' fault, as she does all that she can at every turn to make Julia complex and interesting; the script just sort of fails her.

And that is my biggest difficulty with "Slash." In concept, and even for brief moments, it is a refreshing take on sexuality and growing up that doesn't paint homosexuality or being a teenager as a series of grandiose stereotypes. Unfortunately, as soon as you start to venture away from Neil, Julia, and their relationship, everything else is broadly drawn. The school is overpopulated with bullies whose only purpose is to mock and offend, driven more by plot contrivances than anything approaching actual character development. In Neil's house, his older sister is just another bully, and his parents act like every parent in a CW show would be expected to. More troubling is the mishandling of the parental relationship, as the film seems set on making it seem complex in theory, but confusing in execution. As much as I enjoyed a brief paternal moment that occurs after Neil's slash outing, it read as inauthentic and tacked-on, as if Liford felt the need to set his father-figure apart from the rest, but with no other reasoning than to be different.

I wanted to like "Slash" so much more than I did, but it inevitably falls into the hole that so many of these modern indies land. The kernel of its central story is intriguing, and has a unique sensibility that initially draws you in. However, it all ends up getting mucked up. The strength of the characters crumbles and the narrow view of the world makes it all seem alien. Instead of a captivating film that relies on the audience's ability to see themselves or others in the characters, it becomes a paint-by-numbers tale that is as predictable as it is trite.

"Slash" does many things well, not the least of which is its impressive handling of sexuality that plays in the gray areas of discovery that are part and parcel of teenage-hood. However, the film becomes mired in its own desire to be something else. "Slash" should be a singular film, taking on a subject matter that is underrepresented and often drawn with broad strokes. Instead, it yearns to be a relationship drama. It ends up a mediocre take on growing up, sacrificing its voice for a leaden plot structure.