Today I’d like to discuss a couple of new teen-oriented science fiction-adjacent media products. First up is the movie Slash, which is currently available on demand after a brief theatrical run in Los Angeles. This sensitive and thoughtful movie follows Neil (Teen Wolf’s Michael Johnston), a 15-year-old who is exploring his sexuality by writing explicit slash fiction about the male hero and villain of his favorite science fiction book series. When Neil discovers that a fellow teen, Julia (Hannah Marks from Dirk Gently and The Real O’Neils) is also an erotic fan fiction writer, he experiences confusing feelings that culminate in a journey to a comic book convention for a live reading of one of his erotic stories.
Johnston and Marks do some of the best acting of their short careers in bringing to life characters that in other hands could easily have been either too broad or too clichéd. Especially interesting is writer and director Clay Liford’s decision not to define any of the characters by their sexuality, depicting Julia’s confident bisexuality and Neil’s quiet questioning with sensitivity.
Michael Ian Black has a small role as an older man who takes a literary and sexual interest in Neil, and the creepy elements of that plot are acknowledged and dealt with, if not realistically, the at least satisfactorily. The tone remains sweet and light, pushing aside the kind of darkness or moodiness that too many similar films fall into.
The movie is not without its flaws: The science fiction fantasy scenes have a distinct cheapness about them that is necessitated by the low budget, but they don’t quite match the richness and vividness one would expect an imaginative young man to give to his inner world. But overall, this was a charming—if at times quite linguistically explicit!—movie, and one for which I was glad the studio sent me a screener.
I also want to offer a few thoughts on the new Freeform series Beyond, which premiered on Monday but whose entire first season is available on Hulu and the Freeform app. The show comes to use from the producer Tim Kring, of Heroes fame, and the series has some of the same strengths and weaknesses as the earlier show. In this case, an intriguing premise and (mostly) appealing actors suffer under a generic blandness and scripts that veer between the nonsensically suggestive and the need to lampshade every pop culture homage and reference for the (presumably) teen and young adult audience who won’t know them anyway.
This is the kind of show where characters in their late teens and early twenties are fluent in 1990s pop culture, even though they would have been toddlers at the time, and 1980s culture, but not in an ironic way. This is undoubtedly because the writers are likely in their thirties and forties and stopped paying attention to pop culture after Y2K. It’s also the kind of show where a Dustin Hoffman lookalike looks, sounds, and acts like a 1970s movie villain wearing the costume of the Man in the Yellow Hat from Curious George, and the characters make both of those observations themselves.
But to back up: The show has an interesting premise, of sorts. A 13-year-old boy falls into a coma following a motorcycle accident and wakes up 12 years later with the muscle-tone of a quarterback and superpowers. He missed out on his adolescence and is suddenly plunged into a world he barely recognizes, while a strange cult considers him to be a messiah of sorts, though their end goal is stupidly kept obscure until the last hours of the season.
From this premise, the show divides in two, one pretty good and the other ill-defined and dull. The good one involves our hero, Holden Matthews (Burkley Duffield), trying to reconnect with his old life and make up for lost time. The writers, though, seem to forget that Holden is a 13-year-old in a 25-year-old’s body, and they settle in to treating him like an 18-year-old, creating some uncomfortable scenes where Holden is perving on his 17-year-old brother’s female friends, like those creepy adults who show up at teens’ parties years after graduation. The writers don’t notice, and no one in Holden’s family questions Holden’s adult maturity (gained from 12 years living in a fantasy kingdom called “The Realm”), or, really, much of anything. The parts of the show that focus on Holden’s family sort of work, thanks largely to Jonathan Whitesell (The 100, Once Upon a Time) making the most out of an underwritten role as Holden’s scheming, sarcastic, yet deeply loving kid brother; but the second show, the real focus of the series, doesn’t work very well. Only in the last two or three episodes do the writers bother to explain what’s going on, and by then it’s too late to give the villains any color or personality. Like virtually all TV shows, it comes down to a single family that somehow threatens the world because of their screwed-up dynamics. What, really, are the chances that all of the people who could save or destroy the world are either related by blood or dating? And if your show could have slotted any actor and any character trait into the villain role without changing the story, it’s a pretty generic type of villainy.
The quality of the acting is all over the place. The villains, as I noted, range from the derivative to the blank. The love interest, Willa, played by Swedish actress Dilan Gwyn, has an inconsistent accent that I originally thought was a clue when she claimed to be from far away. It turned out not to be a clue, and the actress just can’t hold a convincing American accent. (Much of the Vancouver-based can’t hide their Canadian vowels despite pretending to be from Kansas.) On the plus side, as I noted, Whitesell manages to convey emotion, nuance, and depth in a role that lacks them. But the biggest problem is the void at the center of the show. Burkley Duffield is miscast. At the age of 24, he looks too young to play a convincing 25-year-old (he mostly played high school students before this), and his typical blank stare drains his character of the energy and charisma that the younger actor playing 13-year-old Holden conveyed in his few brief scenes. They don’t seem like the same character at all, unless the whole point of the fuzzily CGI fantasy “Realm” he visits is to drain personality. Duffield is probably best known for his role as a smarmy teen on the British children’s Egyptian/occult-themed soap opera House of Anubis, and as Holden he emphasizes the character’s passivity, leaving a dead zone where the sympathetic hero should be. Much of this is the writers’ fault. Things happen to Holden, but rarely does he do anything unless somebody else tells him to, sort of like a particularly obedient puppy. By the end of the series, we do not know Holden any better than in the pilot.
There is a simple fix that would have made the show about 50% better. Duffield has experience playing a smarmy teen on House of Anubis, and Whitesell has experience playing an epic hero, having been Hercules on Once Upon a Time. Swapping Duffield and Whitesell would have fixed many of Holden’s character flaws, particularly since in real life Whitesell is older than Duffield at 25 and a much more convincing adult man than Duffield.
The biggest problem, though, is that Beyond has at most 5 hours of story spread over 10 hours of show. Cutting it in half would have made it much stronger, particularly since this first season plays like the opening act to a superhero movie, the kind that bores the audience before the real action begins. That’s fine for 15 minutes in a one-off movie, but not when you expect the audience to come back week after week for 10 weeks.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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