Director/Screenplay – Sean Ellis, Producers – Lene Bousager & Sean Ellis, Photography – Angus Hudson, Music – Guy Farley, Digital Effects Supervisor – Howard Watkins, Production Design – Morgan Kennedy. Production Company – Left Turn Films/Lip Synch Productions Ltd/Cashback Films.
Sean Biggerstaff (Ben Willis), Emilia Fox (Sharon Pintey), Stuart Goodwin (Alex Jenkins), Shaun Evans (Sean Higgins), Michael Dixon (Barry Brickman), Michael Lambourne (Matt Stephens), Michelle Ryan (Suzy), Marc Pickering (Brian ‘ Kung-Fu’), Frank Hesketh (Young Ben)
Art student Ben Willis is deeply upset after breaking up with his girlfriend Suzy. He is unable to sleep and so takes a night shift job at Sainsbury’s supermarket to while away the night hours. He realises that all the others working on the night shift have adopted various strategies to deal with the boredom. Ben finds that his is the ability to freeze time in a single moment and then restart it. This allows him to appreciate the beauty of life around him more. He becomes attracted to cashier Sharon Pintey, although this is disappointed when one of the boorish co-workers claims to be going out with Sharon.
Cashback is a rather charming find from the backwaters of cable programming. I was attracted by what sounded like a fantastic plot description of someone who could stop time. As it transpires, Cashback falls into the spotty but usually worthwhile tradition of the British romantic comedy – see the likes of Gregory’s Girl (1981), Experience Preferred… But Not Essential (1982), The Rachel Papers (1989) and the odd genre effort such as Virtual Sexuality (1999) and What Ever Happened to Harold Smith? (1999).
Cashback started as an 18-minute short film made in 2004 by debuting director Sean Ellis. This became a word of mouth festival hit and won a host of awards, including being nominated for Best Live-Action Short Film at the 2005 Academy Awards, whereupon Sean Ellis was given money to expand it to full length. The short is contained within the feature film version – the scenes with Michelle Ryan of Bionic Woman (2007) fame as Sean Biggerstaff’s ex have been added but basically the start of the film showing his insomnia, his taking the job at the supermarket, his infatuation with Emilia Fox, of the other staff clowning about and especially the scenes that became the talking point about the short film – where he demonstrates his ability to freeze time and walks through the store filled with nude bodies – are all there. The rest of the plot has been added to pad the short to feature length.
Cashback is a film that is made with a genuine magic. The most breathlessly magical of these is the scene that became the talking point about the original short where Sean Biggerstaff freezes time in the supermarket and wanders through sketching the shoppers as they stand in the aisles nude. There is an equally magical scene at the very end where Sean Biggerstaff freezes time and takes Emilia Fox out with him through a snowfall that has been frozen still, showing her the silhouetted path the two of them have left through it.
Cashback sits exactly on the dividing line between whether it can be regarded as a fantasy film or whether the fantastic elements are simply metaphorical. Sean Biggerstaff’s hero does demonstrate the ability to freeze time in a single moment but we are not sure whether this is a real ability. The film frequently seems to suggest that this is just the literalisation of the hero’s imagination. However, there are some moments that make one wonder otherwise – like how the hero also appears to be able to move objects around so that their position is changed when he restarts time, or talk of how two whole weeks had passed before he restarts the party at the end.
There is a very puzzling scene where Sean Biggerstaff freezes time during the soccer game and wanders down into the clubrooms, only to find that there is someone there who can also freeze time. However, the film frustratingly leaves the identity of this other person a mystery – never answering who it is even at the end. A more fantastical film would have drawn this out into something along the lines of Jumper (2008) with two people with the ability to freeze time pursuing each other through frozen moments.
On the minus side, the feature length film gives too much padding to a short film that worked perfectly as it was. There is too much time given over to the clowning staff members – most notably a soccer game that goes wrong, which verges on slapstick at times. There does feel something autobiographical to the film on director/writer Sean Ellis’s part – the youthful pain over the separation with a loved girlfriend, the lament and anxiety over the girl of one’s dreams, the dreariness of a nowhere night shift job, and beneath it all the ache to create something out of the overwhelming sense of beauty that one has discovered in the world. It could be an autobiography for almost any aspiring filmmaker or artist.
Sean Biggerstaff makes an excellent lead. He plays with both a youthful handsomeness and just the right degree of melancholy that the part requires. He is an actor who should be due wider breaks any day soon. Emilia Fox, daughter of Edward Fox and an actress who has been bubbling under in British film and tv, is quite lovely as his object of affections.
Sean Ellis subsequently went onto make the modestly effective horror film The Brøken (2008) about body snatchers that emerge from mirrors, the non-genre heist thriller Metro Manila (2012), the WWII drama Anthropoid (2016) and the werewolf film The Cursed (2021).