July 20th, 2007
The allure of Sean Ellis's 2004 Oscar-nominated short "Cashback" was, in glorious detail, its unadulterated love for the naked female form. But, after viewing the film, one might wonder how Ellis could improve it by stretching it out to feature length?
Beautifully and brilliantly, Ellis treats the short as one small part of the hero’s life. In fact, by adding a backstory, a love story and more depth into the hero’s life and of those of his co-workers, Ellis has given his work an additional profundity which enhances the magnificent mammillas and lovely labias on view.
In the original short, a young English art student named Ben (played by one-time “Harry Potter” co-star Sean Biggerstaff) finds employment at a Sainsbury supermarket to pay for his schooling, introducing us to his co-workers (annoying manager Jenkins, wallflower cashier Sharon and would-be daredevils Matt and Barry) and showing us the secrets that help him pass the time at work, which is ironically enough stopping time itself so he may disrobe the most nubile of female shoppers and sketch them. On paper, I admit that reads really creepy, and in the hands of a filmmaker with less than honorable intentions, it would be creepy on film. Yet it’s made absolutely clear Ben isn’t some kind of sick pervert. He knows it is easier to see the concept of beauty when the world is on pause, and this stoppage of time gives him a unique chance to use the store as a huge nude life drawing class. Ben never once is seen ogling or fondling or otherwise engaging in any kind of otherwise inappropriate behavior.
In the feature, Ben is still an art school student, but his coming to work at Sainsbury now has as much to do with finding a solution to insomnia brought on by his break-up with the out-of-his-league Suzy (Michelle Ryan, soon to be seen on television in the re-envisioned Bionic Woman series) as a financial need to be filled. Slowly and despite his best efforts, Ben slowly becomes a part of the lives of his co-workers, finding inspiration in his heart and for his art when it comes to Sharon (Emilia Fox, a dead ringer for Gwyneth Paltrow).
The first thing one will probably respond to, after the brief rampant nudity, is the exquisite cinematography by Angus Hudson. The florescent lights of a supermarket can often be a harsh place to properly light a film, another world from the softness of a wintry British night. Yet Hudson, with his limited budget, equipment and crew, finds a way to create a balanced uniformity to every scene regardless of location or time of day. An insert of Ben riding on a bus gets as much detail to visual quality as a scene inside an art gallery, where the audience finally gets to see the end result of Ben’s artistic efforts. Perhaps that comes with working with a director like Ellis, who comes from a photographer’s background.
The pairing of Biggerstaff and Fox, however, is the wind that sails this ship. So effortlessly do they glide through this world that, despite their previous efforts (Biggerstaff in the aforementioned “Potter” films, Fox co-starring alongside Adrien Brody in “The Pianist”), this will be the calling card that helps both actors move on to bigger things, regardless of its final box office consequences. Their co-stars, Stuart Gordon (Jenkins), Michael Dixon (Barry) and Michael Lambourne (Matt), all of whom were also featured in the original short, create memorable performances out of their stock characters.
Another fine testament to “Cashback” is how one would never know a fifth of it was shot two years before the remainder. When Naomi Watts and her friends decided to turn “Ellie Parker” into a full length feature, the difference between the original short, which was placed at the start as an opening chapter, looked and felt like a time capsule in comparison to the rest of the film. The short for “Cashback” is dropped right into the middle of the narrative, and it there is nothing that would tip viewers off anything is different.
It is highly unlikely, with its tiny release and practically non-existent advertising budget, that “Cashback” will be able to rise above the din of the major studio releases. Chances are, most people will find the film on video or cable, where it should become a minor cult hit. It deserves a far better fate.
My rating: A-