[With the DVD release of Cashback hitting Canada on July 24th now seems a good time to revisit the film. What follow is Kurt's review of the film from when it played at the Toronto International Film Festival with some words on the DVD thrown in for good measure.]
Put on your raincoats ladies and gentlemen, because I am about to gush very, very hard for Cashback. This British romantic dramedy focuses on the same early 20s transition from school to 'real life' as Kevin Smith's original Clerks or Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World. What makes this one stand out with those films is how it treats the subject with a visual wit as accomplished as modern visual stylists Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Danny Boyle and David Fincher. The resulting film is the pitch perfect blend of high and low culture (Don Carlos to Coldplay if you will) to yield a feel-good film which earns its romantic elements. It is a rare film which chooses not to angrily condemn plastic suburban culture in the western world, but look hard and find small beautiful things amongst the banal. There is a detached joy at work in the film which slowly sheds the former and finds the latter. It is a hopeful movie for those looking to find their way in life, even as it simultaneously exists as a wish fulfillment fantasy. Director Sean Ellis loves to celebrate things as even more beautiful when there is a flaw or two.
The film opens with a close-up on a girls face as she angrily breaks up with Art-school freshman Ben. This is done is slow motion, her perfect lips fluttering in curse words that Ben explains are a tad hard on his fragile ego. The breakup has such an effect that Ben begins to suffer from massive insomnia and detachment from everyday life. Because he is up all night, he takes a McJob at the local gigantic supermarket to make some money with all of his depressing spare time. Once in this job, he does not engage in the juvenile practical jokes of his co-workers or try to avoid looking at the clock (which makes time move slower). No, his technique of making the endless empty activity of the supermarket job pass by is a strange one. Ben gains the ability to stop time and walk around the store looking at the various patrons, frozen now in 'still life,' he draws portraits of the woman he unclothes while frozen. A form of visual and thematic time travel worthy of Chris Marker's La Jetee, this is where the film is quite magical. The act of unclothing and drawing the (gorgeous: 11 on a scale of 1 to 10) women he unclothes is done simply and maturely. There is very full nudity, but it is more erotic than lusty, and all the more fascinating with the bright fluorescent lights of the supermarket; hundreds of packaged goods in the background. These women are the fashion magazine goddesses, flawless examples of perfection, who are engaged in mundane, not-typically-sexy positions. This sort of natural eroticism ends up being sublimely effective. It was no surprise to find out that the director was a fashion photographer for his day job. Here
Another pursuit Ben has at the supermarket is one of the check-out girls. Sharon is also quite serious compared to the rest of the night shift employees. When her and Ben begin to go on dates (as idealized as they are), the actors carry it off with a very natural rhythm of dialogue. You believe it and have faith that young folks can be so mature in their interaction, and trusting to share their dreams. It is the ultimate romantic film for guys, in the rarefied sphere of Nick Hornsby and Steven Frears' High Fidelity.
Cashback has a breezy chapter structure, but you sense there is not a wasted frame. The picture was obviously as rigorously planned as the perfect special effects, but it flows effortlessly between vignettes of Bens childhood discoveries of sexuality, to art school classes the supermarket to a hilariously funny footy match between franchises of the chain. The humor is both smart (Bens explanation of the double meaning of the word 'crush', and physical, even the visual gags (one involving a suggestively shaped shampoo bottle) work.
It is a heck of a lot better than similar themed Garden State, and the performances from all the actors are sublime. I fully expect Sean Ellis to get some wider notice with this movie. While the film may not aim to find the long dark night of the soul, or address many of the other more complex challenges of that time in many peoples lives, it is in no way pretentious, sappy, or otherwise flawed. As perfect as many of the women in the film, Cashback is a gem waiting to be discovered.
And on to the DVD ... the transfer, happily, is excellent, the print source crisp and clear and the film presented anamorphically in its proper 2.35:1 ratio. No complaints here whatsoever. Sadly, though, the transfer is all there is. The disc includes only the film itself, French and English soundtracks (both 5.1), and the trailer. And that's it. Nothing else at all, which seems a missed opportunity.