This film review was originally published online at Science Fiction Weekly, July 27, 2007.

Ben Willis (Sean Biggerstaff) can’t seem to get to sleep. His gorgeous girlfriend Suzy (Michelle Ryan) dumped him two weeks ago after a terrible fight, and now he spends his nights tossing and turning in his cramped dorm room. A struggling art student, Ben decides to turn his insomnia to his advantage by taking a job on the night shift at the local 24-hour supermarket. His coworkers all have perfected quirky methods for dealing with the tyranny of the clock through the long hours of the night, but Ben soon develops a technique of his own that puts the rest to shame. He finds he can freeze time with his mind alone.

Ben is a keen appreciator of feminine beauty, having experienced his awakening to that mystery at the age of six, by way of a Swedish exchange student with little in the way of self-consciousness. He puts his new talent to work by freezing attractive women in the aisles of the supermarket, undressing them, and sketching them like models in a figure-drawing class. As an attraction begins to grow between him and a checkout girl named Sharon (Emilia Fox), Ben finds to his chagrin that he can’t freeze the moments the two of them spend together, only slow them down.

After a disastrous soccer match between his coworkers and the staff of a rival supermarket branch, Ben is enlisted to plan the entertainment at a blowout birthday bash for his injured boss Jenkins (Stuart Goodwin). Suzy, the girl who broke Ben’s heart, shows up unexpectedly at the party. Can there be any doubt that Sharon will see Ben and Suzy together at the most inopportune moment, misinterpret what she witnesses, and rush angrily out the door? Can there be any doubt that Ben will use his time-freezing ability to try to fix the misunderstanding? Does time, or the lack thereof, not heal all wounds?

No time for grown-up emotions

Cashback contains more scenes of leeringly lingering nudity than I’ve seen at my local multiplex in a very long time. This might not be your best movie choice for a first date. But then again, it might be.

Cashback, based on an Oscar-nominated short film, runs promisingly if unevenly for the first two thirds of its length. Though overly reliant on voiceover narration, writer/director Sean Ellis paints an effective and even endearing portrait of a young man whom grief has cast loose from the moorings of the life he thought he knew. Employing artsy shifts between Ben’s present and the sexual touchstones of his childhood, Ellis manages to put across the dreamlike haze of insomnia that defines his lead character’s new life. Sean Biggerstaff, in the role of Ben, is a likeable actor who never lets the weightiness of the material overshadow his essential nebbishy charm. Biggerstaff evens manages to tiptoe his way through scenes that skirt the dangerously creepy, like those figure-drawing sessions in the supermarket, without entirely losing the audience’s sympathy.

Unfortunately, most of Ben’s acquaintances in the film, including his best friend, his boss, and his slacker coworkers, are caricatures painted with much broader strokes. Ben’s introspective scenes are intercut with episodes of brainless comedy that shatter the otherwise reflective tone. The bizarre soccer match is a case in point. Why Ben’s boss, a former pro athlete, would think he and four completely inexperienced stockboys could win an easy soccer victory against a rival store, I’ll never know. Nor will I know why Ellis thought this scene, which seems more appropriate for a David Spade vehicle, was a good choice to include in his movie.

Despite these bumpy spots, the film develops a good momentum, only to come flying apart in its third act. It’s here that Ellis loses control of the many threads he’s been developing. The rules that seem to have constrained Ben’s ability through most of the movie are arbitrarily violated. A subplot involving a fellow time-freezer is dropped and never followed up. A crucial practical joke seems to require more wit than its perpetrators have been established to possess. But most tellingly, the two lead characters, having been rendered painfully and painstakingly real, begin to behave according to hackneyed plot dictates instead of like thinking, flesh-and-blood humans. As the film drags on to a predictable conclusion, intelligent viewers will start checking their watches as obsessively as the supermarket’s night staff.

Cashback is one of those rare films that takes lust very seriously. It’s not afraid to explore the line between that coarse emotion and beauty, and to posit an inherent connection between the two. Unfortunately, it loses its convictions somewhere toward the end, forcing its lead characters to swallow a standard romantic movie myth instead of something more substantial and exciting.  

Starring Sean Biggerstaff, Emilia Fox, Shawn Evans, Michelle Ryan and Stuart Goodwin
Written and directed by Sean Ellis
Magnolia Pictures and Left Turn Films
Rated R
Open now in limited release