By Daniel Barnes
*Official festival showtimes and release dates TBD.
One of the most underrated documentaries of the last decade, David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s Tickled transformed a tabloid-ready story about power and pornography into an engrossing examination of obscene privilege run amok. It was truly stranger than fiction, or at least stranger (and less predictable) than the fiction of writer/director Mark Schwab’s similarly themed Shadows in Mind, a micro-budget erotic thriller about a vulnerable young gay man recounting his descent into dark-web exploitation (full disclosure: the film’s co-producer and unit production manager Tim Sika is a friend and colleague on the SF Film Critics Circle).
Shadows in Mind stars Christian Gabriel as Danny, a Nebraska-born gay man who chased a tech job to the Silicon Valley, only to find himself poor and lonely. That all changes when he meets the handsome and confident Kyle (Pano Tsaklas), a computer programmer with a luxury apartment and a mysterious clientele. Danny falls head over heels, but their relationship grows complicated when he meets Kyle’s bosses (August Browning and Christopher Fung), a couple of crystal meth-abusing pornographers viciously resisting monogamy, as well as the operation’s slimy bankroller (Michael Champlin). I liked the attempt to work themes about the evolution of gay identity into a salacious genre film, but the problem is that Shadows in Mind isn’t salacious enough.
Schwab frames Danny’s story as a flashback told to an LGBTQ suicide prevention hotline worker (Corey Jackson, giving the strongest performance in the film), teasing the tale out as a cat-and-mouse game that eventually involves the police. Unfortunately, persistent pacing problems plague Shadows in Mind, and too many scenes feel shapeless, stale and overwritten. The film gets trapped between a luridly exploitative premise and a blandly tasteful execution, and any potential for tension is undercut by the artificiality of the premise. Without giving too much away, there’s ultimately no real reason for Danny to tell his entire story to a suicide prevention hotline worker except to get the conversation recorded, which even I know how to do on my smartphone.