July 26, 2007
Cashback (2006) started off as a short film that filmmaker Sean Ellis made in 2004 and that went on to be nominated for an Academy Award. Not doubt inspired by this brush with such a lofty accolade, he expanded it into a feature-length effort.
Ben Willis (Biggerstaff) is an art student currently finishing up his last year of college. He’s just broken up with his girlfriend (Ryan) who was also his first real love. Ben realizes that he’s made a big mistake but it’s too late, she’s involved with someone else. Wracked with regret, he is unable to sleep and finds himself with more time on his hands. He tries to fill these additional hours with activity but his ex-girlfriend consumes his thoughts. Strapped for cash, Ben applies for and gets a job at a grocery store on the graveyard shift.
When his insomnia and working a mundane job collide, he imagines that he can stop time. During these moments of frozen time, he imagines all of the women in the store are naked (or nearly naked) for him to study and sketch like some sort of surreal still life class. These women are inanimate objects for him to undress, study and then dress. In the wrong hands these scenes could be nothing more than a sexist male fantasy that allows us to voyeuristically ogle beautiful naked women. However, Ellis goes to great pains to justify Ben’s fascination with the female form. He’s not some mindless pervert interested in a cheap thrill and neither is Ellis who is clearly celebrating the female body, not exploiting it. The filmmaker even provides flashbacks of Ben’s childhood in an attempt to examine his first sexual feelings towards women and how they progressed over the years with others.
Ben starts to break his routine when he becomes friends with a nice checkout girl named Sharon (Fox) at work. They share a moment together where they tell each other their dreams and she unwittingly reaches him, curing him of his insomnia.
Ellis captures the mind-numbing drudgery of working a routine job that is deadly boring. He also authentically articulates what it feels like to go days, even weeks without sleep as Ben is caught in the grips of insomnia. At times, Ellis adopts a dreamy, surreal vibe, like when Ben freezes time, and then offsets these moments occasionally with Clerks-esque humour thanks to the antics of two of his loutish co-workers (Dixon and Lambourne). Ellis’ inexperience as a filmmaker is evident in Ben’s voiceover narration that teeters precariously between eloquent observations about his life and pretentious twaddle, but, for the most part, Ellis is able to rein it in.
Cashback is definitely an odd film that adheres to its own rhythm and does a nice job of presenting the unique worldview of Ben in a visually interesting way. Ellis has created an oddly compelling love story of sorts that doesn’t follow the usual beats of the genre. In this cynical world, Cashback features a love story that bravely and earnestly wears its heart on its sleeve. We could certainly do more with these kinds of films.
“Making of Cashback” is a featurette that mixes interview soundbites with cast and crew and behind-the-scenes footage with clips from the movie. Encouraged by the response his short film got at film festivals, Ellis decided to expand it into feature-length. The on-the-set footage gives a few tantalizing glimpses into how the film got made and it is nice to see the actors and their director speak passionately about the film.
“Academy Award Nominated Short Film: Cashback.” This is what started it all and it is interesting to see how Ellis integrated most if not all of the footage into the feature film.