EmptyBoy loses girl, boy loses sleep, boy finds new girl. The trajectory of "Cashback" is boiler-plate basic, but writer-director Sean Ellis infuses it with an imaginative sensibility that engages the viewer -- to a point. Stripped of its flourishes, there's not much going on beyond a routine tale of growing pains, dressed up -- or undressed -- with philosophical fillips and wet-dream fantasy. Lead actor Sean Biggerstaff, who played Quidditch captain Oliver Wood in the first two Harry Potter films, is a definite asset here. Twentysomething male viewers can connect with his character's art-school sensitivity, romantic yearning and comedic fumbles, while enjoying the statuesque females on display.
Taking his feature bow, fashion photographer Ellis has expanded a 2004 short (contained within the feature), and the polished result demonstrates a facility for filmmaking, with able contributions from his production colleagues. Ellis' script, in particular the voiceover narration he's written for his protagonist, is exceptionally literate. Essentially, though, he doesn't have much to say.
Biggerstaff plays genial art student Ben, who's devastated by his breakup with Suzy (Michelle Ryan, soon to topline "Bionic Woman" on the small screen), an event seen in waggish operatic flashback, complete with an Ikea lamp brandished as a weapon. Suzy moves on without pause while Ben, unable to sleep, studies the-way-we-were photos at 4 a.m. by the light of the dented lamp. Thanks to Ellis' eye for offbeat quotidian details, we get a glimpse of the processing lab's quality-advisory label on an out-of-focus snapshot. Ben also receives advice from lifelong friend Sean, a good-looking guy with a talent for being slapped within the first minutes of chatting up any female; he's played with terrifically droll understatement by Shaun Evans.
Turning his extra waking hours into "cashback," the sleepless Ben joins the night shift at the local Sainsbury's supermarket, where he can suffer amid the packaged goods and withstand the idiocy of the self-important manager (Stuart Goodwin) and scooter-racing staffers (Michael Dixon, Michael Lambourne). Increasingly, he's drawn to Sharon (Emilia Fox), a pathologically bored cashier.
In the cold fluorescent atmosphere, the unhinged Ben discovers that he can put the world on pause, the better to indulge his fascination with female beauty. For a few striking -- and mildly creepy -- moments, he turns a shoppers' aisle into a living museum of unclad beauties and wanders, awed, among them. His play with time involves the past, too. Childhood memories seep into the sleep-deprived present, none more indelibly erotic than an incident involving a Swedish au pair.
All of this is quite less than it seems. For all the film's style and energy, its supposed insights are as soft and bland as its romanticized notions of the artist. And in this post-"Office" era, the deadpan workplace comedy feels familiar and overdone. Among Ben's co-workers, only Fox's Sharon nears three dimensions, convincingly coming into focus from put-upon drone to spirited dreamer. Even with his explorations of suspended time, Ben is a standard, barely interesting character, but Biggerstaff's charm and sincerity go a long way, lending flashes of depth not found in the material.
A Left Turn Films presentation in association with Daphne Guinness of a Bausager/Ellis production
Director-screenwriter: Sean Ellis
Producers: Sean Ellis, Lene Bausager
Executive producers: Daphne Guinness, Vijay Thakur, Peter Hampden, Norman Merry
Director of photography: Angus Hudson
Production designer: Morgan Kennedy
Music: Guy Farley
Costumer designer: Vicki Russell
Editors: Scott Thomas, Carlos Domeque
Ben: Sean Biggerstaff
Sharon: Emilia Fox
Sean: Shaun Evans
Suzy: Michelle Ryan
Jenkins: Stuart Goodwin
Barry: Michael Dixon
Matt: Michael Lambourne
Brian: Marc Pickering
Rory: Nick Hancock
Running time 102 minutes
MPAA rating: R