Sean Ellis' Cashback is one of those film that made a fair impact upon its initial release, but has since slipped back into obscurity, much like Ellis' own career. I remembered Cashback as a film with plenty of youthful passion, creativity and smarts, but was hard-pressed to recollect many specifics. I never revisited the film since that first time, so what better reason to give it another whirl. While I feel the film is starting to show its age a little, it still has plenty of charm and wit left to maintain its high grade.
Cashback is a film that betrays its director's age and experience. It's a coming of age romance that combines (slightly) lewd comedy with ambitious musings on love and affection, packaged with plenty of visual creativity and embellished with a string of inventive ideas to save the film from becoming too stale and/or predictable. It's the kind of film typically made by a younger director who feels this is his one chance to prove himself. It won't be everybody's cup of tea, but it's the type of film I tend to like, if only for its sheer enthusiasm and drive.
The film revolves around Ben Willes (who, through the years, I've come to regard as Ellis' mirror personality) and his first big romantic break-up. After a relationship that lasted two years, Ben decides that there's no more future for the two of them and suggests to end the relationship. His girlfriend throws a fit, throws him out and that is that. Sadly things don't go too well for Ben afterwards, as he starts to suffer from insomnia and finds himself with too many hours in a day.
Ben picks up a job as a night clerk in a local supermarket, which is where things get really interesting. He discovers he can actually stop time and manipulate the world around him. It leads to some mandatory goofing off, but it also gives Ellis the opportunity to create some more magical and introspective scenes, where the coming of age part of the film is allowed to blossom. In that same supermarket, Ben meets Sharon, a somewhat quiet cashier who is about to become his new love interest and ultimately the cure to his insomnia.
Ellis made a name for himself as a fashion photographer and it shows. He has a strong eye for beauty and even though the film was clearly shot on a limited budget, Ellis had no trouble getting around these budgetary limitations. The frozen time scenes are clear highlights of course, but the film in general looks lush and attractive, featuring great camerawork, good use of color and lighting and sharp editing. Not quite on the same level as Mika Ninagawa's work, but definitely a sight to behold.
The soundtrack is slightly less adventurous, but it is used to good effect. It's a combination of traditional piano tunes and classical music, made to fuse extremely well with the visuals. Even though the music by itself is a little inconspicuous, it does get itself noticed and it does add a lot of extra atmosphere, which is the least a good soundtrack is supposed to do. So even though it's not the most original selection of sounds, Ellis does a very fine job incorporating it into the film.
The cast is solid too. Sean Biggerstaff might be somewhat of an acquired taste, mainly because of his understated performance and his dry voice-over delivery, but it matches his character well and he does add to the film's unique flair. Emilia Fox is also a worthy addition to the cast, the secondary parts are equally convincing. There are no real stand-out or career-defining performances here, but there are no weak links either and for a film that in part relies and drama and romance, that's a real plus.
Even though Cashback is quite literally a prolonged short film, it never feels like a film that had certain bits and pieces tacked on afterwards. The process that took Ellis from short to feature length may have been quite rushed and hectic, it never shows in the final product. I've never seen the short film myself, but I'm fairly certain I'd feel at a complete loss if I had to cut this film back to 18 minutes. Everything here has a purpose and adds to the overall quality, with hardly any cruft or filler to speak of.
A film like Cashback can be either a blessing or a curse to a first-time director like Ellis, looking back at his stuttering career as a director I fear it became the latter. While a little disappointing, it doesn't take anything away from this film of course. Cashback is a charming, inventive and dreamy coming-of-age romance with several stand-out moments and memorable ideas. It's a film without any obvious faults and a couple of clear highlights, a fun film to revisit once in a while without it getting stale. An easy film to recommend, especially when it seems to be slipping from our collective memory.