Combustible Celluloid
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With: Pano Tsaklas, Corey Jackson, Christian Gabriel, August Browning, Christopher Fung, Laura Altair, Mike Mizwicki, Devon Lee Grover, Keith Larson, Mark Balunis, Michael Champlin
Written by: Mark Schwab
Directed by: Mark Schwab
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 91
Date: 02/16/2018

Crisis Hotline (2019)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Hotline Pursuit

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Mark Schwab's Crisis Hotline (originally titled Shadows in Mind) opens with a quote by Yeats, about the innocent and how mercilessly they are destroyed, or at least something not far from that. And thus we meet Danny, who calls an LGBT crisis hotline in Silicon Valley, and Simon (Corey Jackson), who answers. As the film opens, Simon arrives on his shift and complains to a co-worker that he's bored of listening to stories about how hard it is to meet a nice boy. Danny's story changes things.

Danny (Christian Gabriel) is new to Silicon Valley, having been recruited into a tech job that sounded pretty good but only allows him to afford a shoebox apartment. Lonely, he goes online and meets Kyle (Pano Tsaklas), and it's love. They go on hikes and go to scary movies, but it's not until the fifth (or so) date — dinner at Kyle's beautiful apartment — that they discuss Kyle's work (which, honestly, seems a bit unlikely). Kyle, of course, also works in tech, something to do with website security, and he only has one client: the married couple Lance (August Browning) and Christian (Christopher Fung).

Without saying much more, it's safe to relate that Lance and Christian are not quite what they seem. Schwab doles out the story's information slowly, flashing back and forth between Danny grimly telling his story to Simon on the hotline, and the flashbacks making up his story. On the phone, Danny is cagey, frequently leaving to get a drink of water or to use the bathroom, and to let his words sink in. "Context," he keeps telling Simon. "It's all in the context."

Some movies are slow-burn, but Crisis Hotline is slow-build. Whenever Danny eventually reveals the next bit of crucial information in his story, it comes as a soft blow. It doesn't seem that shocking in the moment. But Schwab always, deliberately keeps a little something more hidden. The uncertainly keeps the story tumbling forward, off-kilter. The effect is a little like Danny's threat. At first, he lets Simon think that he's going to kill himself by slowly taking pills, one at a time over a period of time, until they do their sinister work. But then, Danny's threats change, and get worse.

Crisis Hotline is set largely indoors, and in mainly in sterile, upper-class interiors. The brief shots of Danny's apartment, messy and filled with boxes that have nowhere to go, are the warmest and most human locations of the story. Even the call center is lonely. Rooms are perpetually heavy with gloom and pierced only by small points of light. The sparse, minimalist decoration also seems to add emotional weight to the drama.

The movie's biggest drawback is that some of the performances, while mostly serviceable-to-fine, sometimes wobble into woodenness. A few of the line readings are uncomfortably stiff, especially when the actors are required to convey actual discomfort and awkwardness, such as meeting others for the first time. But on the plus side, a clever, canny music score by Paul Burch lends a mounting, creepy feeling that lurks just behind the performances, making it seem as if it all could be intentional. The film sometimes even has a Lynchian feel, with moments that are just so unreal as to feel nightmarish.

Overall, I like how Crisis Hotline creates this off-kilter, uncomfortable feel, and how it uses subtle, sometimes surprisingly banal reveals as it builds up to its final blow. I also like how it identifies as an LGBT movie but avoids slinging messages about hardships; it simply tells a story and allows the viewer to identify with its human characters and their all-too-human concerns. What is done here in the final moments is an act unacceptable not just for a gay man, but for anyone at all.

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