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(Clay Liford’s feature Slash lit up the festival circuit and is available now on iTunes. Click this link and take it home for the holidays!)

There is no shortage of coming-of-age films, but none that I’ve seen are quite as virtuous and laissez-faire as Clay Liford’s Slash, a feature-length remake of his 2012 short film. Julia (Hannah Marks, TVs Awkward) and Neil (Michael Johnson, TVs Teen Wolf) are social outcasts who bond over their mutual interest in writing Fan Fic – erotic stories featuring characters from popular culture (mostly films and books, but they do mention a subgenre involving real people). Both the characters and the film itself suggest that committing to a label isn’t necessary. Sexual fluidity is both natural and necessary in determining your predilections. Thanks to their hobby, neither character needs to practice sexuality in order to explore it. They are able to use their imaginations to work it all out. Neil chooses to write about Vanguard, a Star Trek-meets-Buck Rogers sci-fi novel series, while Julia prefers Fein, a series about warring elves. The result is a film that manages to remain light and endearing, whilst tackling the delicate subject of teenage sexuality.

Neil works on his stories every chance he gets; so inevitably, a classmate gets hold of his composition notebook and passes it around school for maximum mortification. It eventually falls into the hands Julia, who, recognizing a kindred spirit recovers the book for him. They strike up a friendship that is both instantly comfortable and fraught with tension (only some of which is sexual). She encourages Neil to post his work online in an adult forum called The Rabbit Hole, where she has been surreptitiously publishing her own writing for some time. Their budding relationship is complicated by Julia’s lout of a sometime boyfriend, and Neil’s lack of confidence. Conflict mounts when the burgeoning authors lie about their age in order to qualify for a live reading during the Houston comic-con. In a moment of weakness, and unbeknownst to Julia, Neil reveals his friend’s true age to The Rabbit Hole’s moderator, whilst maintaining the ruse of his own legality. This one bad call results in his sole qualification for the panel, and creates an additional hitch when the moderator, a middle-aged man named Denis (Michael Ian Black), comes on to him.

At what is certainly the most emotionally fraught weekend of their young lives, Julia and Neil attend the comic con in full costume, bond, fall out, experiment, collude, and connive. Both leads, but particularly Johnson, are tremendous at conveying a wide range of warring emotions within a single scene. The teenage years are the most confusing time in a person’s life. They are, in many ways, still children. But they are also consumed with very adult desires, and the added pressure of needing to make some major life decisions without the wisdom of experience. They must do all of this while swimming in waters teeming with similarly insecure peers who sometimes take it out on the ones they perceive as weak.

A highlight of the film is the enactments of Neil’s stories, shot with complete sincerity and set on an alien world. The juxtaposition between Neil’s juvenile understanding of sex and the authentic sci-fi framework is delightful. Liford’s technical competence and Tishuan Scott’s earnest performance, absolutely sell the Vanguard character, making for a suave and sexy hero, despite the sometimes-ridiculous things Neil’s narrative requires of him. Here’s hoping Liford considers further exploration of the Vanguard world.

– Jessica Baxter (@tehBaxter)

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Jessica Baxter is a visual media critic with a background in filmmaking (including the 2005 award winning horror comedy short film, Snow Day, Bloody Snow Day). She began writing on the internet circa 2006, and spent 10 years as the Seattle City Editor for Not For Tourists. She’s been a contributing writer for Film Threat, Hammer to Nail and Screenrant. She also produces and co-hosts the podcasts Paid in Puke (covering female-driven films) and Really Weird Stuff: A Twin Peaks Podcast. She lives in Seattle, WA with her spouse, kids, and too many pets. In addition to movies, she loves singing, cool clouds, and pie. Follow her on twitter (for now) @tehbaxter and on BlueSky @thebaxter.

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