VOD film review: Flashback (2021)
Perfect build to peak high9
Unexpected emotional hooks9
Anton Bitel | On 04, Jun 2021
Director: Christopher MacBride
Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Maika Monroe, Hannah Gross, Amanda Brugel, Emory Cohen, Keir Gilchrist, Meglis Constantine
Where to watch Flashback online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
Near the beginning of Flashback, aka The Education of Fredrick Fitzell, Fredrick (Dylan O’Brien) is interviewed for a job by Evelyn (Amanda Brugel). “So I see here a bit of schooling in visual arts”, she says, looking at his résumé. “Yeah,” Fred replies, “that’s, um, the dreams of youth, I guess.” In school, Fred may have harboured a passion for art and creativity, but 15 years later, his newly won career as an information analyst has him crunching numbers in a shirt and tie at an office desk, even as he selects tiles and paint colours for his new apartment with long-term girlfriend Karen (Hannah Gross). The film’s opening scene – indeed its primal scene – is from Fred’s point-of-view as a baby, toddling across a well-lit living room towards the darkness and danger beyond a half-open door. Yet now Fred is settling for the straight and narrow, an existence of conservative comfort where the imaginative, risk-taking half of his brain has been dulled. He is also at a critical phase in his life, faced with the prospect of his first child, and with his mother (Liisa Repo-Martell) terminally ill and spending her last days aphasic and unable to recognise her own son.
Fred too has gaps in his memory, and when, caught in traffic, he takes a detour from the main road into a dark alley, he has the first of a series of flashbacks, transporting him to his final year of high school. There he regularly joined fellow pupils Sebastian (Emory Cohen), Andre (Keir Gilchrist) and Cindy (Maika Monroe) on illicit psychonautic trips using the synthetic drug Mercury. Now he cannot remember their final night together, and while he easily locates Sebastian (still living with his mum) and Andre (now married with children), Cindy appears to have disappeared off the face of the earth. The more obsessively Fred investigates his lost love, the more vivid his flashbacks to the past become – and the more confounding his blackouts in the present – as he is drawn back to an adolescent period of his life where once again (or once before) he was at the crossroads between losing himself to exploration and escapism, delinquency and destruction, or following the kind of pragmatic pathway to respectable career and family of which his mother would approve.
Writer-director Christopher MacBride’s previous feature, The Conspiracy, was a slippery found-footage mindmelt, and with his follow-up Flashback he layers on even more ambiguities, in a scenario where the viewer’s grip on reality becomes as destabilised as Fred’s. For soon we are unsure whether we are watching a disoriented, distressed adult trying to work through his past traumas or a drug-addled high school senior flashing forward, Jacob’s Ladder-style, to possible futures that he equally desires and detests. “Are you following me?” Cindy asks Fred on his first Mercury trip, in words that allude to Maika Monroe’s own breakout coming-of-age horror It Follows. “You’re either coming with me or letting me go. Which one is it?” That question confronts Fred in multiple timelines, as his pursuit of the elusive Cindy, and of a lost part of his own character, takes him deeper down into Inception-like levels of half-hallucinatory reality, whether as the product of a psychotropic drug, or of his own stressed, splitting mind.
“It is all just patterns for us to identify, quantify and label,” Evelyn tells Fred, explaining what is involved in data analytics. Her words also serve as a guide to the viewer, as we are challenged to spot the recurring motifs and fixed coordinates in an otherwise dizzying plot where time and space become ever more fluid (thanks to editor Matt Lyon’s masterful match cuts). At its heart, this is a story of a young man at a crossroads, trying to work through his feelings of loss and choose what kind of person to become. It is a weird, upsetting and ultimately moving experience – for even if, by the end, we are uncertain of Fred’s precise age or location, his anguished psychological state is much clearer. This is a conflicted man, caught on the horns of the same fundamental dilemma that has been haunting him since his earliest remembered experience: whether he should exercise his wild, rebellious, artistic side, or stick to what is safe, conventional and deadening.
Ultimately we cannot be sure which of these alternatives is Fred’s reality, and which his fantasy – but seeing both (and switching violently between them) faces the viewer with the same interpretative choice, as we get to explore and indulge our own dreads and desires in the dark. As the shifting times and territories of Flashback trap us in an endless experiential now, increasingly untethered from the norms of spatiotemporal continuity, MacBride’s film raises questions – philosophical questions – about the connections between time, reality, memory and identity. Trying to pin down its meaning might be like, as Cindy puts it, “giving things labels, giving inaccurate names to things that are infinite and unknowable” – or it might just be like trying to think straight at the peak of a high, or in the middle of a mental breakdown. Still, no matter how you resolve the Moebian meanderings of its ramifying narrative, this film will implant itself in your head and have you flashing back to its different cruces long after the closing credits have finished rolling. MacBride delivers a headily non-linear merger of Jeff Lieberman’s Blue Sunshine and Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, while navigating an intelligent, affecting course through regret and responsibility, love and loss. Is reality a prison from which to break free or a safe haven to which to return after a bad trip? In the escapist, mercurial medium of cinema, perhaps there is some truth to both positions, even if, once the film is over, we must eventually step back out of the flickering shadows into the light of day where life goes on and death cannot simply be dreamt away.