A couple years ago at the Seattle International Film Festival, I attended a screening of a set of short films. I don't recall now what the topic of the set was, but the funniest of them was a cute little short called Cashback, about a group of hapless night employees at a grocery store and the various ways in which they fight off the relentless boredom of their jobs.

One of the guys -- an aspiring artist -- could stop time. And he used his boring night job to freeze time, turning the customers in the store into models so he could strip them and practice drawing nudes. It was a well-done little short altogether (even nominated for an Oscar), and when the screening was over, they mentioned that it was being made into a feature. Now here we are, two years later, and one of the funniest films I've seen at SIFF this year is Cashback -- the feature-length version ( which had its debut last year at Cannes).

In order to flesh out a short into a feature, you have to add in some details like more plot and characters. The challenge is in taking a well-made short like Cashback (which really stood alone just as it was) and trying to turn it into a bigger story, without losing any of the charm that made the short successful. Writer-director Sean Ellis (who, according to the "trivia" section on the film's IMDb site, wrote the feature-length script in just seven days, including the entire short within the feature ) backs up a little from where he started with his short, fleshing out the back story of the main character, Ben (Sean Biggerstaff, who has kind of a Brit Zach Braff vibe going here), who develops a terrible case of insomnia after a painful breakup with his girlfriend. Finding himself with eight extra hours a day to fill, Ben decides to take a night job at the local grocery to take up the time. Ben discovers he has the extraordinary ability to stop time, and, as in the short, he uses that talent to freeze customers in place, strip them, and draw them. Ben apparently doesn't care to draw male nudes or women with less-than-perfect bodies; he only strips and draws the sexy female customers. Oddly enough, unlike my local grocery ( which tends to be populated late at night mostly by folks with the munchies stopping at the store for snacks after hitting the bars all night, or sick folks in desperate need of a shot of Nyquil), this particular store has an abundance of attractive, scantily-clad female customers who do their shopping in the middle of the night).

Ben taking advantage of helplessly frozen females to draw them nude without their consent may have some folks cringing; it does feel a bit like a weird sort of date rape -- tempered, of course, by our not knowing if we're seeing something intended to be weird but real, or an element of Ben's rich fantasy life. The ambiguity of the fantastical, stopping-time element is supposed to make us feel better about all this, I suppose, but if Ben was drugging women in bars and taking them home to draw them nude, would it be any different?

The rest of the crew that populates the night shift consists of Sharon (Emilia Fox), who works the register and loathes every minute of it, a couple of guys who while away the hours playing pranks, another guy who fancies himself some sort of martial arts expert, and their dorky, annoying boss, a former football (soccer for those of us in the US) player who forces his employees to play the sport against a rival team, in spite of their glaring ineptitude at all things athletic. I'd love to tell you who was who, but I wasn't able to get a press kit of any sort for the fim, and none of the actors have their pictures up with their IMDb profiles, so it's a bit hard to keep track of them all (there's a lesson for indie filmmakers and actors: a cleverly designed website with lots of bells and whistles is groovy, but give us a break and put some useful info there for those of us who need it, and make it easy to find).

Eventually, of course, Ben develops a crush on the lovely Sharon -- but so does his boss -- misunderstandings of the sort one usually finds in rom-coms occur, and so it goes for 90 minutes or so of amusing distraction, frequented by some funny moments. Is Ben really able to stop time and strip frozen women, or is that just a fantasy of his artistic imagination? Will he ever find a cure for his insomnia and quit the grocery? Will he get the girl? At times Cashback feels a bit like a Brit relative of one of my favorite films, Office Space, only set in a grocery store -- although I suppose you could take any mind-numbingly dull job setting and find a way to make a comedy out of the mundane. At any rate, Cashback is a funny film and worth catching with a date, or a group of friends holding down those "jobs that pay the rent." The film has a limited release coming July 20, so keep an eye out for it at your local arthouse cinema.
categories Reviews, Cinematical