Austin-based filmmaker Clay Liford’s latest feature film had its world premiere at SXSW this afternoon to a packed crowd that included many cast and crew members. A broader adaptation of his own 2012 short film, "Slash" stars Michael Johnston (MTV’s "Teen Wolf") as Neil, an awkward 15-year-old who spends nearly all of his free time writing fan fiction.
In case you’re unfamiliar, the world of "fan fic" is comprised of stories that often present characters from popular movies, television shows and comic books in homosexual relationships and situations. It’s definitely not family friendly stuff and Neil is mortified when one of his personal notebooks gets passed around his school and mocked. The only person who defends him is Julia (played by Hannah Marks from MTV’s "Awkward"), herself a prolific writer and reader of fan fic. She cuts him for his "flowery prose," but encourages him to continue writing. Before long, she’s introduced him to an adults-only website called "The Rabbit Hole" where people can post their own stories and let other members of the community comment on them.
Julia quickly becomes a bad influence on nerdy Neil, encouraging him to ditch school with her and introducing him to drugs. She does succeed in opening him up a little bit, although he’s barely comfortable with himself, let alone another person. Slowly, he lets his guard down and reluctantly agrees to post some of his stories online.
It’s refreshing to not only see a film that depicts teenagers questioning their sexuality but also doing so in such a non-judgemental way. Neil’s hobby is strange to everybody around him, but it’s something he approaches with zeal.
He goes through an experience that queer youth often do – he hides himself and his desires to most people around him, but then has a profound friendship that changes his life and makes him more determined to force an experience that may seemingly make the decision for him. Neil tries his luck with an older man named Denis (Michael Ian Black), who is the editor of "The Rabbit’s Hole," by lying about his age so that he can attend a comic convention in Houston and read some of his work to an audience. When the truth comes out, his plans are thwarted, which only adds to his frustrations and confusion.
I only have a very surface-level understanding of the fan fiction world and while it does mostly play that up for laughs, it strikes me as a wholly original teen comedy buoyed by two very strong lead performances. Johnston and Marks have a remarkable chemistry on screen and it’s not hard to believe that these two outcasts would come together to save each other.
From a technical perspective, the movie looks fantastic, especially in the sci-fi scenes where Neil’s stories come to life. Mostly shot in the Austin area (the Galaxy Highland makes an appearance and Marchesa Hall doubles for a Houston convention location in some scenes), it also features some great local music from bands like Moving Panoramas, Bright Light Social Hour and a variety of artists from Monofonus Press.
Other screenings: 5:15 p.m. Monday, Marchesa Hall; 7:45 p.m. Tuesday, Alamo South Lamar