“I bet we’re the only two kids in this entire joint who know about what we know about,” says Julia (Hannah Marks) at one point in “Slash,” words that sound particularly sweet to the friend she’s saying them to, Neil (Michael Johnston), since for as long as he can remember he thought he was alone in his passions. A devotee of the “Vanguard” series, a sci-fi fantasy in a similar realm as “Star Trek,” Neil spends his time after coming home from high school rabidly penning fan fiction steeped in otherworldly delights he can only imagine and sexual tension that’s all too close to home as a 15-year-old boy, unsure of his sexual orientation. In Julia, a self-described bisexual he comes to find also writes erotic fanfic, Neil has found a soulmate, though whether she could be a romantic partner is part of what drives Clay Liford’s irresistible comedy.
A film that could only be made now when subculture – either gay or geek – has overtaken the mainstream, “Slash” still has a timeless feel about it, light on its feet as it tackles thorny issues of identity. Putting a distinctly modern spin on the familiar coming-of-age tale, Liford hardly makes it easy on his two leads, who may go to the same school but only bond once they meet in an online forum (“Rabbit’s Hole”) using avatars, and while their relationship quickly extends to the offline world, both are reticent to let either each other or anyone else know who they really are, with Julia striving to be different, her brash facade masking a difficult home life, while Neil just wants to fit in, only figuring out who he is when he writes. Each are far more comfortable within the realms they create for themselves and they’re talented at it, so much so that they’re invited to read their work at a convention in the big city, a weekend away from their parents where naturally all hell breaks loose.
Liford is also no slouch at world-building and between the “Vanguard” sequences that imagine the fanfic Neil writes and the chaos on the convention floor, “Slash” consistently plays bigger than one might suspect. Yet as ambitious as the film is from a production standpoint, what it achieves as a story is even more impressive, since Liford captures precisely how Neil’s desire to become a fully realized person and his forays into fantasy start to conflict with one another. “Slash” gets every detail just right from the buzz Neil gets from the small notes of encouragement he receives from an admirer in the online forum who, under the impression he’s 18, plots a sexual encounter at the Rabbit’s Hole convention to his relationship with Julia, which doesn’t only benefit from strong yin-yang chemistry between Johnston and Marks, but comes through the limited time we spend with their families and often Chelsea Turner’s meticulous production design. (Further credibility comes in the form of a deep bench of sterling supporting characters including Robert Longstreet and Sarah Ramos as Neil’s father and sister, respectively, and Michael Ian Black and Missi Pyle as the convention organizers.)
Intentionally slick on the surface, “Slash” cuts deep, wringing laughs from the cringeworthy behavior of awkward teens (and the adults who have to figure out how best to show they care), but also nailing the desperation to be understood, and although his characters may have trouble expressing exactly who they are and what they want, the same can’t be said for Liford, whose confidence makes “Slash” such a poignant and sharply perceptive delight.