Flashback, the newest feature from Canadian director Chris MacBride (The Conspiracy), turns the notion of “Choose Your Own Adventure” on its head by supposing that maybe all of the choices are happening simultaneously?
I was provided with a free Blu-ray copy of Flashback for review. The opinions I have shared are my own.
Originally titled The Education of Frederick Fitzell, the name Flashback seemed like a misnomer. In the view of some, the film seems to be about a thirty-something young man who succumbs to flashbacks of his former life. To others, it’s the story of a high school druggie who experiences a version of his future self during an eventful trip. MacBride’s vision posits both are true; it’s for you to decide.
The eclectic thriller stars Dylan O’Brien (Love and Monsters) as Fred Fitzell. We open on him peering through the window of a hospital room. The hallway is long and cold behind him, while the room is bathed in a shade of terracotta that’s just shy of being natural. He’s joined by his partner, Karen, played charmingly by Hannah Gross (Joker). We come to understand that the woman they’re visiting/watching trepidatiously is Fred’s mother, Mrs. “Mom” Fitzell. Liisa Repo-Martell (Lars and the Real Girl) has little to do, but she does it well in her portrayal of Mrs. Fitzell – the long-suffering single mother who clearly is just doing her best. She’s in the hospital after bouts of aphasia and her doctor tells Fred and Karen that she’s dying.
It’s interesting when a movie about memories and life experiences opens on a very stark portrayal of dementia. It’s one of the many jarring juxtapositions that makes Flashback such an intriguing watch. Fred is at the precipice of his life. He and Karen have moved into a very adult condo and he’s starting a new job as a data analyst under the watchful eye of his boss, Evelyn (Amanda Brugel, The Handmaid’s Tale).
He’s moving forward and yet when his mom becomes ill, we see him choose to revert to his childhood fascinations. He doodles incessantly (“The dreams of youth” he dismisses during an interview) and after he is plagued by dreams he can’t quite reconcile featuring a monster he can’t quite identify, he begins to journey into his past. This journey takes him the wrong way down a one-way street back to his old high school, his old friends, and to the house that beckons. He becomes obsessed with finding Cindy, a dream of a high school girl played by Maika Monroe (It Follows).
His behavior could be called a classic case of arrested development. His obsession with a mystery from his past – Where is Cindy? – allows him to not deal with his future, but as Fred learns, life doesn’t work this way.
On its own, this pretty beefy premise seems self-contained, but MacBride has a love of layers and burying meaning beneath them. Added to the fray is a drug called mercury or “merc”. Fred, a bored high school student, finds new excitement when a kid makes him hold the drugs in the school bathroom while he’s questioned by security outside. Emory Cohen and Keir Gilchrist play Sebastian and Andre respectively. Sebastian is the ringleader who originally plants the drugs on Fred, and Andre is the go-along. Cindy rounds out the misfit bunch as the girl who always seems to be present for these things.
There’s a starkness to the scenes where they’re all together that is fitting of high school in the ‘90s. Of course, these actors are older, but the authenticity of their style was pitch perfect. We all knew this group of wastoid kids. And while drug deals may not have been going down so brazenly in front of the school, you knew when those kids would find a way into the boiler room and go missing from class.
That nostalgic feel both grounds the movie and makes it slightly uncomfortable which I believe is the point – at least one of them. And there are several. The beauty of Flashback is not just in O’Brien’s excellent delivery (a million sorrowful sonnets rest in his tear-filled eyes), it’s not just in the women of the film being the true heart and glue that frame the narrative, and it’s not just in one of the most beautifully cinematic last acts I’ve seen in a long time. It’s in the rewatching. The rewinding and the multiple views where you contemplate the meaning of what’s really happening on the screen.
It’s all about choice, both on and offscreen. There’s a surreal nature to the adult!Fred scenes that fuel my theory of the movie being a flashforward, but there are other elements later on that make you think the story contains multiple timelines that intersect and overlap each other. The length you’re willing to go could depend on whether you see yourself as whimsical or grounded. It’s not spoonfed, but it’s also not frustrating.
There are a few pretentious moments; an expository rant about the reality of one’s state of being, an epileptic Lynchian nightmare that’s as visually cool as it is confounding, but overall the movie doesn’t condescend. Instead, it questions and invites discussion. It invites feelings and perhaps even residence while the meanings are all worked out.
MacBride relies on color to tell a lot of his story and this is executed brilliantly by cinematographer Brendan Steacy. I mentioned the score in the last act, but the entire film has an eerie nonspecific ‘90s nostalgia to it that grounds each scene. Composer Pilotpriest aka Anthony Scott Burns’ music invades subtly, carrying you through each scene.
As a whole, this endeavor is a well-helmed entry in our post-pandemic world. MacBride says Flashback was probably the second script he wrote. He’s meticulous about every detail and the effort shows on screen. This isn’t just a psychological thriller, but in part a love letter to MacBride’s youth. He mentioned he’d been working out the script for over ten years, but really it’s probably been his whole life, maybe many of them.
Flashback is a good trippy watch that will invite many future visits. I highly recommend you make the choice to go see this passionately crafted film.
Rating: 4.25 / 5
Maika Monroe – Despite being co-lead, she has very little to do although she does fill the role well. You’ll come to realize that the movie is not as much about her character as you’d come to expect. And you’ll be 100% fine with that. Her character will either be revolutionary or annoying AF, but her work at fleshing Cindy out is solid. She is a manic pixie dream girl, but only to Fred. Outside of Fred, she’s just a sad girl who prefers being high to her current life. This is true of most of the members of the group, especially Gilchrist’s, Andre. There’s a scene where you don’t even realize Andre is there and when he announces himself, Sebastian tells him he should leave. This is the point of that character and it is perfect.
Moms Are People Too – We see Fred’s mom paralyzed by a stroke. Fred tries to talk to her and there are times she seems racked with fear, not knowing who he is. The times we see her are so beautifully punctuated with frustration, love, fear and understanding. Repo-Martell really stands out in a subtle role. The majority of Repo-Martell’s role is lying in a bed, but man does she play it. Get those tissues ready.
Oh Karen! – Let’s be real, she’s one of the few Karen’s I root for! MacBride mentioned to me that he and Dylan considered changing her name due to the times, but thankfully decided it against it. Hannah Gross plays Karen so lovingly. As a character who could just sink to the background and become wallpaper, Gross’s Karen holds your attention, even as she loses Fred’s.
All About Evelyn aka Amanda Brugel is a treasure – I’ve rarely seen someone commit so resolutely to a role that should be a blip. Evelyn is Fred’s boss and a senior data analyst and everything that entails is poured into her short yet impactful performance. MacBride says she shot for two days and at first glance it’s almost a “blink and you’ll miss it” kind of a role, but Evelyn’s curtness, her desperate professionalism, her pure love of corporate structure and quarterly financial reports, all speak volumes. There’s a chance for her to be the villain and instead, Fred is the one who deserves questioning. Evelyn loves data. What else is there to say?
The journey of Flashback premieres June 4, 2021, and can be found streaming OnDemand and in select theaters through Lionsgate in the US and OnDemand through Vertigo Releasing in the UK.
Stay tuned for a full interview with director Chris MacBride coming soon to The Geekiary.
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