"Cashback" is a gorgeous feature-film directing debut for Sean Ellis (an expansion of his short film of the same title), but at the same time, it's a hurried hodgepodge of a motion picture. While lacking a finite sense of danger or wonder, "Cashback" recalls "Donnie Darko" in the way both features announce a fresh directorial talent who only needs time to smooth out his rough edges.
Art school student Ben (Sean Biggerstaff, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets") has recently been dumped by his lady love and is now lost in a disturbing bout of insomnia. To pass time, Ben takes a janitorial position at a local supermarket, staffed by a rotund collection of dorks and Sharon (Emilia Fox), a checkout girl who fascinates him. As the sleepless nights start to add up, Ben looks for ways to occupy his mind, soon uncovering his ability to stop time and take notice of the details he misses during the day. This gift allows Ben to further his study of the female figure while dissecting his life from a safe distance.
What "Cashback" holds in its favor is the indescribable nature of the film. The picture happily vaults from moment to moment, with little regard for plotting, logic, or payoff. It's a tangy mood piece arranged by Ellis as a calling card for future successes. He's put a heap of effort into the film, and it shows in the idiosyncratic curves of the direction. However, walk into this film expecting dramatic substance, and you're better off with "Transformers."
For those with a more ambient sensibility, "Cashback" is a lullaby to the crushing boredom of the 8-hour workday; the dead-end-job doldrums that make life feel like a penitentiary, yet the film is hardly a "Clerks" knockoff, even with the copious amount of shenanigans Ellis pipes into the corners of the film involving the prankster nature of Ben's co-workers and the microcosm of the store. No, this death rattle of life in a job that holds no significance is a starting point for Ellis to explore thicker, dreamier takes on the mind's inability to stay at rest.
Ben doesn't spend his time at the supermarket working, mind you. The young man is lost in his own constant commentary on life, dealing with the burden of losing love and trying to stifle his screaming brain, which now takes him through the pages of his sexual history. Ben's inner-thoughts turn into a nearly spiritual monologue, as the artist reassesses the roots of his obsessions and the future of his wounded heart.
Whether or not you can follow the film into the time-stoppage subplot is a matter of personal taste. It's a sci-fi conceit, but Ellis treats it as an opportunity to soak up the beauty of everyday life; to find artwork in the mundane details. An artist to his core, Ben uses his gift to undress the shoppers, dreamily pursuing his visual itch. In fact, one of the many things memorable about "Cashback" is the abundance of nudity that passes through the frame; a brave undertaking in an increasingly uptight film scene.
Eventually, "Cashback" settles down from something otherworldly to a boy-meets-girl scenario that only holds weight due to the efforts of the cast. Otherwise, Ellis's visual scheme and commitment to velvety scene transitions are the real star here, while the story tends to wither away, locating an end point that's abrupt and a bit too tidy for my taste. Whatever its faults, "Cashback" remains a striking cinematic debut for Ellis and a fluid detour into the hidden pockets of the mind.
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