How often has a mainstream film tackled the real-life anxieties of the kind of questioning teens who turn to Tumblr and Reddit to learn the facts of life? Mostly because it’s complicated and uncharted territory, a lot of adults just don’t get it. The flourishing variety of gender and sexual-preference labels allows these kids to choose identities on their own terms, but there are also so many options that the process might seem paralyzing to an adolescent who hasn’t even figured out the basics of love/sex IRL. Writer/director Clay Liford, in his endearing comedy Slash, explores these identity crises through the burgeoning world of fan-fic Comic-Con nerds as they face the real-life and online hardships of being a teen today. And it’s both funny and enlightening, a nuanced yet sometimes brash look at how teens see themselves, not how adults would like to see them. Parents: Take note. Teens: Relax, you’ll figure it out.
High-schooler Neil (Michael Johnston) might be gay. Or bi. Or something else. But he indulges his fantasies by writing steamy same-sex and pansexual fan-fic about a comic book hero named Vanguard. He’s got eyes for the theater kid Jack (Dalton Edward Phillips), but also for the sarcastic, loudmouth Julia (Hannah Marks), whom he learns is actually a popular erotic-fan-fic writer on a site called Rabbit Hole. Liford could easily have portrayed Julia as a regular old Manic Pixie Dream Girl — she pushes Neil to publish his work and live out loud — but the director grants Julia her own scenes of self-discovery. She’s stuck in a relationship with a punk jerk, and her best friend Martine (Jessie Ennis) is pregnant and acerbic, poking fun at all her insecurities about dressing up (in private) as an elf.
Julia proclaims she’s bisexual. Neil can’t quite make up his mind, though Julia keeps asserting that he’s gay. As the two grow closer, their longing and confusion bubble up in sweet little moments, like when Julia watches Neil sleep and physically relaxes some of that tough-girl tension from her shoulders. The love they share is genuine and much less cartoonish than what they dream up in their sexually speculative fiction.
Liford is a confident writer/director who portrays teens with a rare, full-bodied humanity. Even a supporting character like Jack gets a vulnerable moment: His girlfriend tells Neil that Jack is definitely straight, and the subtle look in Jack’s eyes suggests there may be a closet between them.
All of these young actors give heartfelt and whip-smart performances, but I have to say that Ennis in particular seems like a star ready to burst — you might know her from Veep or Better Call Saul. In one scene, her Martine is smoking a cigarette in the parking lot after school, belly bulging out of her jacket. Julia tells her “It’s not a myth” that cigarettes are bad for babies, but Ennis lifts a casual deadpan “No, it’s fine” into next-level comedy.