MasterChugs Theater: ‘Cashback’

British filmmaker Sean Ellis turned his 2004 short film, Cashback, into an indie feature of the same name in 2006, and his expansion of an intriguing premise turns out to be a moving exploration of the universal need for human connection.

His daily life refracted through a magical realism inspired by creative artistic viewpoint, protagonist Ben believes he has gained special powers of observation. But ultimately his particular carnival ride through the landscape of romance teaches him far more about the salvation possible in human relationships than what can be gained or protected by avoiding them.

I only just recently discovered this movie on my own, and for that, I feel shamed. It is THE emo-drama movie for guys. Why? Because we’ve been there before. Also, it’s got boobers, which is always a good thing. I don’t really know what it was about the synopsis of Cashback that made me want to put it in my Netflix queue. Even now, when I go back to reread the synopsis, there’s nothing that jumps out at me. Whatever it was, I’m glad it caught my eye because this is a gem of a film.

Ben is an art student at university who suffers from a horrible case of insomnia after his girlfriend dumps him. Since he’s already not sleeping, he figures he might as well do something useful with the extra time; so he gets a job as a night janitor at a grocery store. In a rather interesting plot twist, it turns out that Ben can actually stop time. While most of his colleagues can’t wait for the hands to go flying off the clock, Ben stops time to make it go by more quickly. Ben uses his “gift” to deconstruct every molecule of a moment and completely appreciate the beauty that can be found in everything, if one only takes the time to acknowledge it.

Like a dreamy, depressive superhero, Ben eventually faces temptations generated by his newfound, seemingly special skill. A budding romance with refreshing and beautiful coworker Sharon forces Ben to make a choice between the allure of fantasy and the earthy reality of moving on. Ultimately, he even learns that the right circumstances of self-reliance and emotional transparency just may allow a little bit of both.

What the film 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.

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 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.

For all of the praise I am bestowing on Cashback, I’m hesitant to go overboard, though there really isn’t anything I disliked about it. This is a good romantic drama with moments of greatness, but I don’t think I’d go the distance by proclaiming it a great film in totality. There is an inherent predictability and derivative nature at its core that firmly grounds it to its genre, though there are definitely moments when it escapes its confines for a bit to explore some very worthwhile flashbacks and ripples in temporal manipulation. It sometimes strives just for laughs, such as a fairly superfluous soccer game where the boys get trounced, but these indulgences earn some choice humor. Wherever Ellis takes us, we’re willing to go, primarily because every frame seems to be inspired from personal experience (whether it be the director’s or ours) and perspective (because, once again, almost all of us have been there), whether crass, funny, or erudite in tone.

Cashback earns its laughs (though there aren’t an insanely large amount of the boisterous kind-think more subdued), and does feature a very sweet romance that bubbles under the surface, which makes it a very good example of how to make a conventional romantic comedy with personal vision and creative flair. If only other filmmakers would realize that the key to a quality rom-com lies with our ability to relate to the situations and feelings of the people in the middle of the relationship, seeing the humor of their foibles and the heart-wrenching emotions of the downturns. We see the ups and the downs, the smiles and the tears, the angst and the embraces. Even if the stories are all similar, each person’s story in unique, so when a filmmaker invests this much of himself into his work, the result pays off for the rest of us who can relate. Like its title suggests, whatever money you pay for the ticket or rental, in addition to your time, will be rewarded with plenty of amusement and choice reflections on our own lives, both in and out of love.