While watching CASHBACK, I suddenly had the experience of déjà vu. I knew I had seen Sean Biggerstaff in the Harry Potter films and Emilia Fox in KEEPING MUM and Shaun Evans in BEING JULIA and THE SITUATION, but the other actors seemed overly familiar as well. And the plot was vaguely like something I had seen before too. Well, after the film was over and I read the press notes, the penny dropped: I HAD seen the film before -- at least a version of it: the 2005 Oscar-nominated short. Although the film lost to Martin McDonagh's SIX SHOOTER, writer-director Sean Ellis was provided the opportunity to flesh out his 18-minute movie into a full-blown feature. The crux of the story is there: artist Ben Willis (Biggerstaff) works the graveyard shift at a local supermarket and assuages the boredom by imagining he has the power to stop time. Using that ability, he freezes the customers and sketches the female form (after undressing them). Ben emerges as a complex character, one who loves women but also one who observes women as objects -- the artist in him wants to capture perfection. In art class when he is supposed to be drawing a male model, he sketches a pretty classmate (and is told by his instructor to focus on the model at hand).
Ellis begins the film in a very clever and intriguing manner. With Ben's voiceover, we watch as he is angrily confronted by his girlfriend who clearly wants to end their relationship. We don't hear exactly what she is saying, but from her expressions and her body language, her feelings are clear. At this point, the audience isn't quite sure what to make of Ben -- is he a real "prat," or is his someone with whom to empathize? For the first half of the film, I couldn't make up my mind (and I tended to go with the former) but somewhere around the middle of the film, Ben began to emerge as more sympathetic.
Following this traumatic break-up, Ben finds that he suffers from insomnia -- with an extra eight hours that he normally would spend sleeping, he opts to work the night shift at Sainbury's. Most of the other workers tend to be bored silly despite the pep talks of the boss (Stuart Jenkins). The others include the very pretty Sharon (Fox), whom it takes Ben a while to notice, the jokers Barry (Michael Dixon) and Matt (Michael Lambourne) and Brian (Marc Pickering), a martial artist.
The slight story revolves around how Ben copes with his broken heart and how he tries to mend it with Sharon. There are the requisite romantic obstacles and a sort of deus ex machina in the form of a gallery owner (a cameo from Jared Harris, who happens to be married to Emilia Fox).
CASHBACK is a likable film that is bolstered by Ellis' terrific eye for composition. A trained photographer, he has managed to translate his skills to the moving image (something that not all photographers can do) with some breathtaking results. An extended fantasy sequence at the supermarket is one of those moments. However, Ellis is still feeling his way as a director. A sequence on a football (that's soccer to us Americans) field runs on a bit too long.
Still, the screenplay is peppered with amusing lines and the characters are all fairly well drawn Even those who seem to be crafted with broad strokes are shown to be human.
CASHBACK is a charming and unusual romantic comedy that is well served by its talented cast and its upcoming writer-director.
Rating: B MPAA Rating: R for graphic nudity, sexual content and language Running time: 102 mins.
Viewed at the Broadway Screening Room
Sean Biggerstaff as Ben Willis in CASHBACK Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures