Iris Out: Ellis’ “Cashback” is an artful indie comedy

Natalie Schermer

I have a soft spot for indie comedies, but by definition they can be hard to find, and some of them never quite reach the limelight. A certain number of them have made it big, but there are plenty of excellent ones out there that have mostly avoided the public eye. Sean Ellis’ “Cashback” is one of those that has hovered on the edge of recognition ever since its release in 2006.

Sean Biggerstaff, whom “Harry Potter” fans will recognize as Oliver Wood from the first two films, stars as Ben, an English 20-something art student who hasn’t been able to sleep since his girlfriend Suzy broke up with him. And this isn’t just a minor difficulty of falling asleep or only getting a few hours a night: Ben actually has not slept for about a week when the film begins. In order to fill the eight extra hours he now has per day, Ben gets a job working the night shift at Sainsbury’s, the local supermarket.

The supermarket provides most of the backdrop for the film and it is there we meet the main cast of characters: Sharon (Emilia Fox), the bored checkout girl with bigger dreams; Jenkins, the ridiculous boss who takes himself rather too seriously and Barry and Matt, the insensitive clowns who make it their jobs to be as annoying as possible.

Ben is the stoic one: He does his work without complaint, avoiding looking at the clock, trying to get his artwork into a gallery and start his career as the artist he knows he can be. But Ben has a secret, and this is where the film really diverges from reality, dipping into the realm of fantasy.

Taken at its most basic level, “Cashback” is a tribute to art and beauty. The film starts off very down-to-earth, appearing to be your typical romantic comedy. However, it grows steadily more and more whimsical, addressing at various points such subjects as love and space and time and the beauty in every moment.

Ben’s main subject as an artist is the female form and that, too, becomes something of a theme, especially when he starts to fall for Sharon. The pace of the film adds to the whimsy: it progresses slowly, soothingly narrated by Ben.

The whole composition almost feels like it takes place underwater, with muffled sound and restrained movements. This feeling isn’t inappropriate considering the film’s treatment of time. Ellis plays with the ways time can be sped up, slowed down and stopped altogether. The supermarket employees all know that looking at the clock during an eight-hour shift only makes the time go slower, so in order to make his shift go faster, Ben imagines that time is stopped — and seems to succeed.

As a viewer you’re uncertain as to whether these frozen moments are real or not, and Ellis doesn’t clarify, preferring to bend reality how he pleases. The result is a lovely little gem of a film, with a romantic comedy shell hiding deeper commentary on love, beauty and the fleeting nature of life.