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March 9, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

Cashback began life as a 15 min. short film that struck a chord with audiences enough that it won an Oscar nomination. The writer/director/producer Sean Ellis decided it would be worth it to expand it into a feature that incorporated the short, saving time and money. It reportedly only took him a few weeks to write the script and get the entire cast onboard, including the lead, Sean Biggerstaff, who plays Ben Willis, a young art student suffering from insomnia (two weeks worth, at least) after a traumatizing breakup with his girlfriend, Suzy (Michelle Ryan). To pass the extra 8-hours of day, Ben takes a job at a local supermarket where he meets his egomaniacal boss named Jenkins (Stuart Goodwin), two loafers named Barry (Michael Dixon) and Matt (Michael Lambourne), and a pretty checkout girl named Sharon (Emilia Fox). Because of his insomnia, Ben finds himself able to manipulate time, eventually being able to pause the present whenever he wants.

The short itself finds its place about midway into the first act, after Ben’s voiceover has set up the back-story and he’s just gotten hired. Ellis skillfully introduces us to the other characters by documenting how they pass the time at such a mind-numbing job: Sharon refuses to look at the clock, Barry and Matt goof off. This leads to Ben stopping time so he can do nude pencil sketches of the attractive female shoppers… and I’m inclined to question just where the supermarket is; I dare anyone to find me one that has this many model-pretty women shopping after hours. It’s telling that the short film still remains the best scene in the feature, not so much in that the rest of the film isn’t good, but more in that it feels cobbled together of other less provocative, less original, less satisfying self-contained shorts.

The first act is the only section that has a coherent continuity, with the second and third indulging in digressions that take us away from the first person perspective (that of Ben’s) established in the first. Most of these scenes work, especially when Ellis finds a way to tie it into the Ben storyline and the themes of love, time and recovery. Others egregiously stand out like a sore thumb, most notably the soccer game that Jenkins puts together that pits his supermarket crew against another, which feels like something more out of a bad sit-com. Although other sitcom-like scenes service some of the best in the film, one involving a new worker named “Kung-Fu” Brian showing Matt and Barry one of his patented “moves” had me in stitches.

The most startling thing about the film that will garner it either the most love or derision is the bizarre, almost bipolar, shifts in mood, tone, and focus. On the one hand, you have Ben’s profound heartache over his breakup that introduces us to his character. Ben himself is quite the sensitive introvert so it only makes sense that such a crushing blow would leave him questioning what he thinks he knows about love, women, and even time and memory. Biggerstaff, while not the most charismatic of actors, plays him with a natural, everyday-guy likability. Ellis renders these scenes with a tangible emotional realism, one that will leave almost anyone with a “yeah, I’ve been there” reaction. He heightens the aesthetic just enough (slow-motion, close-ups, opera vocals) that it’s affecting without being indulgent or artificial.

On the other hand, most of the rest of the film plays more like a quirky, extroverted indie comedy rather than any personal, romantic drama. Barry, Matt and Jenkins are little more than caricatured comic relief, although amongst the most affable and charming of their type. They’re the kind of characters that I could easily see working (and working well) in a sitcom, and it’s usually a good thing when a film leaves you with a “there’s more stories here to tell” feeling. In a sense, the characters of Sharon and Sean (Shaun Evans), Ben’s best friend, bridge the gap between the slapstick comedy and romantic drama. While Sharon is one of the supermarket employees, she’s closer to Ben’s normality than the others, making her a prime romantic interest, while Sean gets to indulge in some bonehead behavior while also offering a deeper friendship and solace to Ben.

Like contemporaries Anton Corbijn and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ellis is a photographer turned director. Although when Sharon says to Ben near the end of the film, “Shhhh, this says more about you than anything you could say,” one could easily say the same about this film; if anything, Cashback is unexpectedly overwritten. The voiceover monologue, while essential in the first act, is more and more out of place later on. It also obscures many of the finest directorial moments that need no linguistic editorializing. Two transitions especially stand out as being extraordinary. The first takes place early on after Ben has just made a call to his ex-girlfriend. The shot from his right side in profile tracks right at a 90° angle as Ben moves backwards and the background transforms from a dorm hall to his bedroom, essentially playing an optical illusion of him falling. The second is more elegantly simple and invisible. In one of Ben’s childhood flashbacks several kids are lined up in front of a garage. The camera tracks right, moving down to their feet, and transitions from the garage line to a supermarket line, from the past to the present.

For all the film’s disjunctive structure and disoriented tone, the exuberant spirit of the cast, characters, and direction largely pull it through. The best moments seamlessly blend these elements, like the opening where Suzy rants and raves head-on into the camera and Ben’s voiceover reflects on the event with a bemused detachment, especially reaching a crescendo when he sentimentally mentions the “lamp they bought together at IKEA” as Suzy throws the lamp at his head. It’s often said that to write a comedy you simply make the characters believe they’re in a tragedy, and there’s nothing more tragic than a heartrending break up when you go through it, or as funny when you watch others go through it. But it takes a real artist to be able to render both tragedy and comedy at the same time, in the same scene, at the same moment. That blending of tones, along with the films more mystical, fantastic, and romantic elements (none of which, thankfully, are overused or become gimmicky), create a truly original film, one that doesn’t always work, but one that reaches ecstatic heights when it does.

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