In Cashback—expanded by Sean Ellis from his 18-minute, Oscar-nominated short subject—insomnia and ennui send a depressed young Londoner into a dreamlike torpor. Sean Biggerstaff (Harry Potter's Oliver Wood) plays Ben Willis, an art-college student who—after being dumped by his girl—copes with his depression and inability to sleep by taking a night-shift job at a Sainsbury's supermarket.
Ellis makes Ben a compelling character through deadpan, poetic confessional narration, well played by Biggerstaff. Unfortunately, this dry-wit poetry goes all wet with the supporting characters: the cartoony losers on the night shift (Michael Dixon and Michael Lambourne) and their pathetic manager (Stuart Goodwin). Ellis abruptly promotes one, Emilia Fox's Sharon, from caricature to rounded character, the better to provide Ben with a new romantic option. As such, Cashback betrays some signs of strain in building additions onto the original property.
Ben Willis is clearly an alter ego of Sean Ellis, who began his artistic career as a fashion photographer. Ellis exploits his keen eye with flashback reveries and fantasy sequences awash in female nudity and magical realism involving Ben's ability to freeze time—a trick he uses to sketch still-life nudes (don't worry: as an aspiring painter, Ben has a healthy respect for the female form). The latter element cheerily breaks narrative rules, though Ellis' refusal to delve into its supernature—particularly the teased idea of other characters sharing the talent—seems less an artistic choice than a copout.
While Ellis resides in this unnatural state, or simply trails Ben's tortured soul around, Cashback is darkly funny, lyrical, and touching. When Ellis strays into conventional comic territory, the film becomes goony in tone. And when it becomes a romantic comedy, the film threatens to become ordinary, with a message that amounts to "All you need is love." Happily, Cashback's eccentricity holds, but Ellis and his audience would have benefited from a clearer direction and a bit more restraint.