Mar 3, 2011

Cashback (Dir. Sean Ellis. 2006)

Cashback is a little gem of a film albeit with some very visible flaws when held up to the cold light of criticism.  I don’t know how many of these films get made each year (too few) but I do know that most of them fall under the radar due to a lack of promotion.  Large studio films often achieve a profit due to their extensive promotion, even when they don’t have the substance to warrant such success.  This type of film has no such resources and its best hope is to achieve cult status through word of mouth and late night TV screenings.

The film was written, co-produced and directed by onetime fashion photographer Sean Ellis.  It focuses on Ben Willis (Sean Biggerstaff), an aspiring young art student whose life is not as simple as he’d like it to be.  A less than amicable break up with his girlfriend Suzy (Michelle Ryan) threatens to overwhelm his very soul.  Suzy screams at him menacingly but the sound of her anger is muted.  Instead we get the beginnings of a lengthy voice-over from Ben, a narrative that sounds like a diary entry read aloud.  The breakup crushes him and throws his life into a pattern of chronic insomnia and personal displacement.  He drifts between moments of imagination and dark reality.  As Ben tries to come to terms with the world that he has found he must now reluctantly be a part of we get to go along for the ride.

The introspective v/o narration isn’t the only film technique that director Ellis has used.  A number of flashbacks are also employed to show the young Ben in his formative years.  Some of these are hilarious, male viewers will likely appreciate the humour more.  During these times there is some full nudity so if that offends you stay well clear.  In fact, there is quite a lot of nudity in the film but it’s not presented in a sleazy way.  Ben is art student; the naked form is part of his world and crucial to his perception.  He doesn’t come across as creepy even when undressing women in the supermarket.  (Not recommended outside of movie-land.)

He drifts solemnly through the daylight hours and exists in a state of self-induced limbo during the night, fearing what he calls “the haunting period, the time when the demons of regret come for you.”   In order to fill this void in his existence and the sleepless nights Ben takes a nightshift at a Sainsburys supermarket. For those of you not familiar with the supermarket chain, think mop & bucket, stacking shelves, tedium and a very low wage.

His boss and co-workers are colourful character stock types but they are portrayed and played with such passion and obvious enjoyment by the actors that they are fun to watch.  Much of the cast will be familiar to British audiences but may well be a group of unknowns to overseas viewers.  We have Jenkins (Stuart Goodwin) the supermarket boss whom no one respects; he is an idiot but thinks of himself as a genius and a demiurgic love god.
Also present are the stereotypical comedy duo, Barry and Matt (Michael Dixon and Michael Lambourne respectively), two loveable clowns that reminded me so much of two of my college buddies that I got a little nostalgic.  And finally, the silver lining in this dark cloud, the beautiful wallflower checkout girl Sharon Pintey (Emilia Fox); unlike Ben, Sharon is fully grounded and a dedicated realist, she is his opposite in many ways.  I’ve always liked Emilia’s work and she didn’t disappoint here either.  She never comes out of her comfort zone as an actress but that’s okay as the film doesn’t require such a Cinderella moment.

It would be remiss of me if I didn’t mention that there are similarities in Cashback to some of Kevin Smith’s films but thankfully it shows more restraint and the similarities aren’t enough to drag it down to that juvenile Kevin Smith level.  It also made me think of Donnie Darko (Kelly. 2001) more than once, it too being an enjoyable mesh of ideas stitched together to become something greater than the sum of its parts.

Ben spends his time in work daydreaming about the nature of love and imagines he has the ability to stop time, to freeze a fleeting moment and examine it from his godlike vantage point outside of time’s constraints.  He determines that in order to see the real beauty in people the hustle and bustle of the world needs to be put on pause.  It’s an interesting twist on that much used technique in film when the hero meets the soft focus maiden and time slows to a crawl.  These moments are the real meat of the film.  In the frozen time Ben walks the aisles and ponders his own existence and the lives of the late night shoppers.  The shoppers become a still-life under the artists gaze.  The realisations and reasserting idealisms of the character are never more poignant than at these times.  Some of his observations are beautiful and emotionally stimulating pieces of prose.  While it’s appealing to exist there permanently he soon finds that there is something in the real world that still calls to him and the film shifts to explore that side of a dreamer’s existence.

Much of the action takes place indoors but when we do get outside the external scenes are welcome additions, which is not to imply the internal scenes are bad.  There is no substitute for natural light in film, especially for low budget productions like this but cinematographer Angus Hudson does a good job with the tricky supermarket lighting and it never feels too harsh or unrealistic.  Lighting is something that is often overlooked and it’s nice to be able to mention it and make it relevant to an audience.

The editing is a little schizophrenic, sometimes it’s sublime and sometimes it’s almost amateur.  One particularly great example where it succeeds involves Ben as he moves from the telephone to his bed, and simultaneously from one emotion to another.   The change in location is achieved in a single wonderfully fluid movement and was done completely in-camera; it needs to be seen to be understood.  It took a whole day to shoot.

The film has elements of slapstick (the soccer game) and outright belly laughter but it’s the subtle and often sarcastic dialogue that shines the most.

The success of Cashback ultimately depends on your ability to empathise with Ben and his situation.  If you’ve had a similar relationship breakup and are now far enough removed that you can laugh at it then the film will likely resonate on a much deeper level with you.  If you engage with it on an empathic level you’ll reap more from it.  Watch it passively and you’ll get bored when the comedy wanes.

Which brings me nicely to the flaws I mentioned earlier, they aren’t new or exclusive to low budget independent film.   Cashback falls into the same pit of predictability that its bigger budget American counterparts succumb to, that after the first hour the comedy falls away and the story all of a sudden is forced to stand on its own two feet, quite often it fails and is only saved by the feel-good finale.  To a certain extent this happens to Sean Ellis’ film also.  It helps that the speed of the film has been slow throughout so no great loss of pace is evident.  It stumbles at the usual time but stick with it and you’ll see it recover.  The ending is too abrupt but not unsatisfying.  It’s one of those endings wherein what is not said is more important than what is.

I found out after viewing that the film started life as an 18 minute short that got an Oscar nomination in 2005.  I found the original short on veoh for comparison and discovered that almost all of it all is included in the full length feature which was completed two years later.  It’s an amazing achievement to keep the film looking consistent after such a length of time.
I would recommend not watching the short unless you have first seen the feature length.  It doesn’t ruin the ending but it’s a different entity without the back-story.  For those of you that have seen the full length or those that may want to see only the short it can be found here.  

The film uses some classical and some pop music throughout but also had an original score written by Guy Farley.  Farley is clearly a talented composer and his ability to help bring a scene to life is without question.  His score reflects the highs and lows of the characters emotions and adds to the comedic moments brilliantly.  You can hear excerpts from the film and many of his other works at his official site.

To sum up, what Cashback lacks in finesse it makes up for with ideas in a delightfully sharp and poetic script.  At times the editing is a little clumsy and at others it’s inspired with clever transitions from scene to scene. The feeling you get when the credits roll will hopefully be one of contemplation.  If not then you’ve either missed the point or the director has missed his target.  It’s not perfect but I hope it makes that cult status I mentioned before.  Watch it, tell your friends and tie them to a chair so they will watch it too.

It’s not high art; it’s a British rom com that isn’t a Four Weddings and a Funeral clone.  Thank god.

*** out of 5