AUSTIN, TEXAS — Miss Stevens and Slash are not your parents' high school movies. The former tells the story of a depressed English teacher (Lily Rabe) who chaperones three of her students to a regional drama competition. The latter is about two teens (Michael Johnston and Hannah Marks) who write queer fan fiction — "slash," in the community's parlance.
It's fitting that both would premiere at South by Southwest, a festival that this year played host to the "spiritual sequel" to ultimate high school movie Dazed and Confused. Whereas Richard Linklater's 1993 comedy toasted one kind of outcast — the slacker — these two movies embrace new kinds of outsiders. SXSW is the passing of the torch.
These movies don't just feature gay characters, though there are those. Miss Stevens features YouTube star Lohanthony (real name Anthony Quintal) as a gay student. Slash includes Michael Ian Black as an older gay man. But much of the queerness in these films comes from a more fluid understanding of sexuality.
In Miss Stevens, titular teacher Rachel Stevens talks with her students about a play she did in school. She was playing a male character, and was supposed to hug her female love interest instead of kiss her at a pivotal moment. Rachel doesn't have some dramatic revelation about her sexuality because of this — she's definitely straight — but she also doesn't shrug it off. It meant something to her.
Similarly, in Slash, Neil and Julia are attracted to each other, but each try on different labels. They both write slash. Julia thinks all women are bisexuals. Neil flirts with a significantly older man. In other words, they're teenagers desperate to figure out who they are.
"Clay [Liford, Slash's writer/director] was saying yesterday ... if he had to put a label on it, he didn't think Neil was gay or straight," Marks said in an interview with Mic. "Neil was just attracted to individuals and personalities and people that he loved."
These two movies represent something quite compelling: The way young people talk about sexuality is changing. Over half of all teens define themselves as not totally heterosexual. Slash even hints at this, with Black's older character guessing that Neil only wishes he were queer in order to fit in — "even somewhere small."
This fluidity is infinitely more compelling than obtuse stories about binary sexuality. They feel all the more urgent: simultaneously of-the-moment and progressive.
"I hope, in the future, nobody has to come out," Marks said. "Or that you'll have to come out as straight just as you would have to come out as gay. ... People should just be what they are, and I think this movie is in support of that."
Despite advancements in how film and TV tell stories about gay teens, they remain quite binary. Even a show as LGBTQ-friendly as Johnston's own series Teen Wolf, where he plays a gay character, doesn't explore shades of queerness much. Johnston, for his part, wants to put character before sexuality.
"The fact that some people might watch this, and it might be good representation for the LGBT community, is awesome," Johnston told Mic. "But shooting this movie, my primary concern was really just with being honest and showing this character grow."
But in an industry that still has problems acknowledging its diversity, each portrayal of queer people, particularly queer teens, makes an impact. Young people are leaders in this realm. They've grown with someone like Quintal on YouTube, and now they see him with a male love interest in Miss Stevens, a movie that treats his sexuality so matter-of-factly.
This is why Marks and Johnston say they hope Slash — and movies like it — find their way to young people. "We really want it to go on Netflix," Marks said. "We want it to stream somewhere so kids can see it easily." Indeed, as Ellen Page noted earlier in the festival, the more access kids can have to deep, varied portrayals of queer characters, the more they'll learn and grow.