Fan fiction, and specifically slash fiction, doesn’t get a lot of respect. Like any subculture (or sub-subculture), it’s a world made up of outsiders and misfits, people who don’t squeeze neatly into traditional categories. It’s a world you, yourself, have probably mocked. It’s one I’ve mocked.
That’s why it’s the perfect setting for Clay Liford’s Slash, a film about two misfit teens who don’t fit in anywhere, except maybe the weird, wonderful space they share together. The best romances – Rocky, Harold and Maude, When Harry Met Sally – are founded on just such a premise, the idea of finding love on the fringe, of outsiders who find their home in each other, and Slash shares a spirit with those films, a feeling that is charming and slightly, beautifully dangerous all at once.
Michael Johnston is Neil, a shy fifteen-year-old loner who spends his free time writing homoerotic fan fiction about his favorite sci-fi series “Vanguard.” He meets Julia (Hannah Marks), a year older and seemingly a lifetime cooler, but the unlikely pair bond over their shared passion: Julia writes fan and slash fic about an elven fantasy series she cherishes called “Fain.” The fan fiction forum they frequent is holding a panel at Houston’s Comicpalooza (hey hey!), and Julia and Neil plan to attend and meet Denis, the 38-year-old moderator who’s got an inscrutable crush on Neil and is played by Michael Ian Black.
Beyond their marginalized interests and congenital introversion, Neil and Julia are alienated by their sexuality, both of them existing in an unfixed romantic space that confuses themselves and each other, and challenges the gay-straight paradigm of most teen (or otherwise) romance. At different times in Slash, Julia confesses herself to be bisexual and a lesbian, all the while wholly immersed in a toxic relationship with an older boy who treats her poorly and bullies Neil. Neil, meanwhile, is sexually drawn to Vanguard (played in the film-within-a-film and in Neil’s own fantasies by Tishuan Scott) and intrigued/terrified by Denis’ advances, but he’s also clearly in love with Julia, and he tells her that she’s the first human – not girl, but human being – he’s ever truly been attracted to. There are no easy answers to “what” Julia and Neil “are,” sexually speaking, as is true of so many people but too few fictional characters. What they are is kindred. Corresponding halves. Soul mates.
As much as Slash seems to be about Neil and Julia’s quest to define themselves sexually, really, who they’re attracted to is such a small part of who they are. A far more pressing, present journey is shown through Neil’s fledging attempts to establish himself as a writer - and not just someone who scribbles unseen fantasies in a composition notebook. “Writers, real writers, let people read their shit,” Julia tells him, and it’s the most important piece of advice Neil or thousands of other teenagers could ever receive.
This is where the self-actualization comes in, not in some grand coming out scene that has no relevance to Neil’s sexual reality, but in the moment that he hits "submit" on his first piece online, or when he reads the first words aloud in a room full of people at Comicpalooza. How many of us discovered ourselves, our true selves, through writing, and even more through gritting our teeth against the fear and finally letting someone read our words?
The bittersweet success of Slash is entirely dependent on the performances behind Neil and Julia, and thankfully Johnston and Marks are up to the challenge. They’re funny and awkward, adorable and perfectly real. Liford surrounds them with both the mundane, scenes in hallways and at kitchen tables, and the fantastical, the world of Neil’s imagination and the elaborate costumes of Comicpalooza, and the truth is they never seem quite at ease in any of it. Neil and Julia are at ease when they’re just being Neil and Julia, sitting on a stoop, snacking and talking about Fain and Vanguard, about writing tropes and fertility rituals and the Brontës. Slash exists as a poignant, often hilarious reminder that the world of our own making is the only one where we really belong.