AKA Shadows in Mind
UK release date – TBC
Small scale thrillers are often pretty surprising, particularly when the size of the locations are the inverse of the scope of the drama. Past film makers have produced tightly wound dramas with just a handful of actors and without much more than a single room or a speeding car to play with. But achieving this kind of thrill power requires a lot of finesse from both the director employing all these elements and the actors themselves. In the case of Crisis Hotline the story involves just a few locations and two characters talking over the phone while the action switches between the phone operator and the caller’s flashback narrative. However neither one of these strands proves to be compelling thanks to a lot of drab execution and stilted performances.
The story opens with Simon (Corey Jackson) starting his night shift at the crisis centre. For whatever budgetary reasons this is just a large empty office with only a single phone, and it’s very odd that such an important service can only take one call at a time. Maybe shooting this in a smaller cubicle and some clever sound design would have given all of this some illusion of size. It might seem like an odd thing to focus on, but this kind of cheapness immediately sets up a lot if issues with the storytelling, issues that start to sap any kind of suspense from the get-go.
Simon is pretty cynical about his job since it involves a lot of callers from the LGBT community who just want to tell him about their relationship problems. Which could be a fair assessment on his part, but I get the impression he just doesn’t have the right kind of passion for the job. However his temperament is soon tested by a more serious call from Danny (Panos Tsaklas) who begins to talk about taking pills and hurting himself, and others. This should be the change in gears that gives the whole tale its dramatic stakes, or the start of an engrossing mystery. But we already know that something seedy involving the internet is going to come into play, since the opening of the film showed… youTube view counters.
The lack of any sort of edge-of-your-seat drama isn’t helped by how grey and flat the film looks, regardless of whether the scenes take place in a dull office or a Silicon Valley consultant’s fancy apartment. Instead the seriousness of the subject matter is continuously undermined by the plot jumping back and forth between Simon’s present day concerns and Danny’s long and winding trips down memory lane. The crisis centre isn’t convincing and neither is all the talk about computer servers and bespoke online services. They even struggle to make a long series of dating montages have any kind of romantic undertones as Danny explains what led him on his dark path.
A lot of this is due to a cast who deliver nearly all the dialogue in the same kind of monotonous fashion. They sit in kitchens, they sit at dinner tables, they drink wine, they talk about sinister online projects. Even when things like drug use and pornography are introduced the characters barely break a sweat or raise their voices. Danny’s shady new boyfriend Kyle (Christian Gabriel) at one point breaks down and explains that he’s a ‘bad person’ and his clients make him do ‘bad things’ but it all comes off as laughably wooden. There’s almost a complete lack of tension throughout, even when his creepy associate Forrest (Michael Champlin) is introduced to add some much needed personality to the proceedings.
However most of the other characters suffer from a lack of depth or even basic definition, and despite a few glimpses of charisma from Danny’s employer Lance (August Browning) everything is incredibly bland. Such a seedy premise should have been depicted in a far more grim and interesting way, and a story with so much potential sex appeal should have been far more emotional. At best it’s just melodramatic, but at worst it’s dry and lacks any kind of pacing. This is a story about lonely young people being lured into abusive situations, but the whole thing is far too dry and it’s a slog to sit through purely from a structural point of view.
When a film has almost zero tonal shifts between light dating dialogue to crystal meth use, you know there are more than a few surface problems. But when lines are all spoken with the same timbre and locations start to blur together there are bigger issues at the core. Which is a shame when there are very serious issues being raised, it could all have been a harrowing contemporary story. Instead it comes across as the material for a short film stretched incredibly thin without the appropriate characterisation or narrative hooks. It gets a few points for intent, but when the basics are never expanded on there’s nothing here to recommend it.