Cashback (United Kingdom, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The way Cashback gently plays with reality tickles the memory with distant echoes of Big Fish and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. For his feature debut, Sean Ellis has crafted a delightful romantic comedy that provides insight into the heart of a painter and the minds of those trapped working the graveyard shift at a 24-hour supermarket. Along the way, women get naked, couples fall in love, and teams lose pickup soccer games 26-to-nothing. Cashback isn't daring or ambitious but, despite its uneven tone and occasional tendencies to meander, it is endearing.

In 2004, Ellis made an Oscar-nominated short called "Cashback" about the lives of grocery store workers. The film gained some degree of notoriety because of its "extreme" nudity - full-frontal shots of women posed in grocery store aisles while frozen in time. Two years later, Ellis elected to take the premise of "Cashback" and develop it into a feature-length endeavor. He brought back the entire cast to film another 80 minutes. The finished product includes not only the new material but almost the entire short. In fact, nearly all of Cashback's nudity is from the 2004 version.

Ben Willis (Sean Biggerstaff) has just undergone a traumatic breakup with his girlfriend, Suzy (Michelle Ryan, soon to be The Bionic Woman). The emotional trauma has given him insomnia so, to pass the night hours, he decides to work at a grocery store. There, on the night shift, he is accompanied by pranksters Barry (Michael Dixon) and Matt (Michael Lambourne), manager Jenkins (Stuart Goodwin), and pretty checkout clerk Sharon (Emilia Fox). While his body goes about mundane tasks, Ben's mind wanders free, freezing time so he can undress and pose female shoppers in order to paint their portraits. The act is artistic, not prurient (and is presented as such - there's nothing erotic about these scenes; they are ethereal), and Ben's fascination for the female form is explained via flashbacks. Eventually, he learns that the path to emotional healing and a good night's sleep may lie in connecting with Sharon, but things are never easy in a romantic comedy…

The key to Cashback's likeability is its characters. They're the kinds of people we appreciate spending time with. Ben's voiceover narrative is smart and sharp and doesn't merely regurgitate things we can figure out by looking at the images. Sharon is believable as the kind of woman one might find working in a grocery store late at night. She starts out average-looking (not the kind of person to turn heads), then gradually becomes more attractive as the film progresses. We are seeing her through Ben's eyes. Ellis imbues Cashback with a whimsical tone, and there's a hint of magical realism. The scenes when time stops are beautifully staged.

The actors all do good jobs. Sean Biggerstaff strikes the perfect note as Ben - a little shy and nerdy but with a sense of humor and the soul of an artist. As Sharon, Emilia Fox is approachable and, as indicated above, made to look subtly more attractive as the film gets closer to the end credits. Michelle Ryan is shrill, but that's intentional since her character is included to provide the expected romantic complications. Michael Dixon, Michael Lambourne, and Stuart Goodwin are on hand primarily for comic relief. Sean Evans fills the best friend role adequately. Aside from taking Ben to a go-go bar and providing him not-so-sage advice about love, his primary purpose is to either get slapped by women or have drinks thrown in his face.

The film's structure is a little awkward, almost certainly as a result of its being expanded from 20 minutes to 97. Some of the additional material is welcome since it fleshes out the characters and their relationships. What happens at the end is a nice touch. Other things, such as the soccer game, are filler. On the whole, however, it's more than worth it to endure the few slow patches to get to the more plentiful good bits. Cashback is light, smart, and enjoyable, and it makes me eager to see what Ellis has planned for his next outing.

Note: This movie is being released theatrically in the United States by Magnolia Pictures, the company committed to nearly-simultaneous releases on movie screens and home video. Thus, while Cashback will only be playing in a limited number of theaters beginning July 20, it will be available on Region 1 DVD four days later. For those who can't (or won't) see it on the big screen, it's worth a least a rental.

Cashback (United Kingdom, 2006)

Director: Sean Ellis
Cast: Sean Biggerstaff, Emilia Fox, Shaun Evans, Michelle Ryan, Stuart Goodwin, Michael Dixon, Michael Lambourne
Screenplay: Sean Ellis
Cinematography: Angus Hudson
Music: Guy Farley
U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 2007-07-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1