SXSW FILM 2016
By Don Simpson | March 20, 2016
Director: Clay Liford
Writer: Clay Liford
Starring: Michael Johnston, Hannah Marks, Deborah Abbott, Laura Bailey, Courtney Bandeko, Violett Beane, Michael Ian Black, Susan Burke, Burnie Burns, Brandy Burre, Alexandria DeBerry, Amy Leigh Edwards, Jessie Ennis, John Ennis
Clay Liford’s Slash enters the fan-fiction subculture of slash by way of the naive perspective of Neil (Michael Johnston), a 15-year-old who spends his free time writing homoerotic stories about his favorite superhero, Vanguard. It is a significantly more worldly classmate, Julia (Hannah Marks), who introduces Neil to The Rabbit’s Hole, a slash website that features material similar to what he has been clandestinely scribbling in his journal. Julia (aka Fain_Girl_5) has been uploading her own erotic fan fiction to The Rabbit’s Hole under the false pretense that she is 18-years-old, and she urges the sweetly innocent Neil to do the same.
Her experience in the world of erotic fan fiction allows Julia to play the role of Neil’s writing coach and mentor; Julia’s sexual experience allows her to challenge Neil to contemplate the blossoming of his own sexuality. As kindred spirits, Julia and Neil develop an intense friendship, but the two adolescents discover that they are both very confused when it comes to the intimacy of their relationship.
Liford cleverly uses slash fiction as a vessel for Julia and Neil to explore their own sexual identities and invent themselves, juggling the societal norms of reality with the fantasies that they have only been able to realize within the fictional context of their writing. Slash fiction gives these two adolescents a forum to address their erotic fantasies, using fictional characters as avatars to echo their own desires; this also allows Julia and Neil to mold their heroes into much more relatable personalities. Functioning as a rebellion against the homogenized heterosexuality of mainstream fiction, slash writing enables Julia and Neil to create utopian worlds free of gender and sexuality biases.
While Liford is intrigued by how erotic fan fiction can help his characters achieve their sexual awakenings, he seems equally enamored by how it has become the last bastion of pure fandom. A fully immersive fan experience, there is no more intimate a connection with fiction than to uninhibitedly fantasize about the characters.
It is worth noting that any film that attempts to represent a subculture is going to ignite hysterical debate about its legitimacy. Slash is no exception, already undergoing fire for featuring a male protagonist in a traditionally female world. That criticism has been made despite the film’s earnest depiction of Julia as the stronger and more experienced slash writer. Just because Liford uses Neil’s perspective to drive the narrative, he by no means diminishes the role of female slash writers. When Julia exclaims that females have historically been better at writing erotica, the statement rings unchallenged and indisputable. Liford expands upon this claim by ensuring that Julia is more experienced (sexually and writerly) than Neil; it is undeniable that Julia is more attuned at writing about romantic and sexual situations than Neil.
What makes Slash truly special is Liford’s unbridled compassion for his protagonists. It is abundantly clear that he respects and admires Julia and Neil, so much so it seems he wants to be them. Liford admires their naiveté and freedom. He wants them to become comfortable with themselves, just as he relishes their intimate connections with their fictional heroes. Michael Johnston and Hannah Marks are perfect cyphers for Liford; not only do they accurately represent the ages of his protagonists, but they bring the perfect sensibilities to their characters.
Liford also does quite well to visually encapsulate Neil’s Vanguard fanfic, so much so that there will likely be high demand for a feature-length version of Tishuan Scott as the polyamorous Vanguard. That is a film that absolutely MUST be made. Cinematographer Ellie Ann Fenton adroitly transcends both universes, representing Neil’s world with the necessary realism and sentimentality, while showcasing Vanguard’s universe as something that is truly hyperreal/surreal.