Sean Ellis’ feature film debut is actually an expansion of his same-titled, Oscar nominated short film from 2004, which had a struggling art school student named Ben discovers he could stop time, and uses this novel gimmick during his dull nightshift at a grocery store to disrobe beautiful, shapely shoppers and draw them.
The short is basically about the coping mechanisms used by Ben and his colleagues to get through a boring 8 hour shift, and Ellis basically ported over all of the footage, pretty much retaining the original edits and most of the music and narration; fifteen minutes into the theatrical film, what unfolds for the next 12 minutes is the original short.
All of the actors reprised their roles, and the new material at the beginning provides a backstory to poor Ben, a college lad who voluntarily dumped super-hottie Suzie (Bionic Woman’s Michelle Ryan), and the baboon males he works with at a Salisbury store. Added to the mix are Ben’s aspirations of becoming an artist, the addition of best buddy, and his gradual affection for co-worker Sharon, whom he eventually woos.
The best way to approach Ellis’ theatrical expansion is as a fanciful fairytale where boy gets girl and lives the dream of becoming an artist. As he demonstrated in his second feature, The Broken (2007), Ellis has a superb eye for ‘scope compositions, moody/dreamy pacing, flowing sound design, and a fixation for personality nuances, and collectively they almost manage to support the film to its conclusion, but in spite of the film’s obvious elegance, it’s an incredibly juvenile portrait of women as pretty objects.
Ben’s time-freezing talent makes for an intriguing hook: unlike the short, where Ben simply discovers he can freeze time while on the job, in the expanded version, the breakup with Suzie has robbed him of any desire to sleep, so he decides to kill time and earn a bit of cash doing the night shifts during his otherwise wide-awake nights. Weeks go by, and Ben remains virtually unaffected by a total lack of sleep; his only frustration comes from the obvious ennui inherent to retail work, and it’s during a recent shift that he discovers he can stop time.
Rather than use it for anything extravagant or affective towards humanity, Ben takes advantage of his odd gift by approaching the frozen females in the bread aisle and disrobing them, and capturing their hidden personas and physical beauty through pencil sketches. He’s an artist, and Ellis has Guy Farley score the scene with a fine orchestral cue that evokes the beauty and vulnerabilities of Ben’s half-naked shoppers, but as inventive as the scene may be – Ben’s walk past and around frozen subjects is technically brilliant – it’s still a lad indulging in the basic male desire to see and touch boobs, bums, and panties.
Ellis’ camera angles and Ben’s positioning of garments reduces his semi-nude figures to men’s magazine models, and that kind of neuters Ellis’ attempt to show Ben being a lad with earnest artistic intentions. It’s good that he remembers to return each fabric to its proper position, but Ben’s still being a naughty boy.
One could argue the freezing sequences are a transitional stage for Ben; he’s using sexual imagery to fuel his genuine artistic talent, but he’s still a college boy whose mind is cluttered with the usual naked imagery. (Even when Ben expresses in the film’s narration his feelings towards Sharon, Ellis has him visualizing her as a stripper, gyrating around an illuminated pole.)
The other flaws in Ellis’ theatrical film are the secondary male characters who, by and large, are morons. They’re amusing, but they’re also fantasy creations; perhaps the entire lot – including the store manager – are meant to symbolize the degenerative mental status Ben’s in danger of acquiring if he stays too long, whereas art symbolizes his exit path from a mediocre life.
Cashback isn’t really a European art film, as some critics have said; the frank nudity has perhaps confused some into thinking Ellis is an auteur whose work is filled with obtuse symbolism and metaphors. The theatrical version is much more of a fantasy film with juvenile coming of age elements, and while that doesn’t make for an implausible film, there isn’t enough dramatic substance between the film’s hook and finale to acknowledge it as satisfying drama.
Note: whereas the Canadian Atlantis/Remstar DVD is a virtual barebones release, the U.S. Magnolia DVD includes Ellis’ original short film, and the short also appears on Magnolia’s A Collection of 2005 Academy Award Nominated Short Films DVD.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan