After a chance encounter with a mysterious man from his past, Fred Fitzell’s repressed memories become unlocked and he embarks on a strange odyssey where he looks for answers regarding a manic pixie dream girl who went missing 15 years ago and a heavy drug they took together one night.
In Flashback Fred is played by Dylan O’Brien, who never seems to age, an ambiguity that’s put to good use here as his character jumps back and forth in time 15 years (without the aid of special effects) and we notice that he’s believable as both a high school senior and as a 30-year-old businessman. O’Brien, who was 27 at the time of filming, gives maybe the best performance of his career in the follow-up to last year’s criminally under-appreciated Love and Monsters.
Fred’s story plays out in a non-linear fashion as he begins receiving aggressive flashbacks to the night that he and this girl, Cindy Williams (Maika Monroe, It Follows), spent together when they were 17. The unique narrative becomes completely justified as our protagonist uncovers secrets that have been kept hidden from him, which also means we (the audience) are able to come to conclusions at the same time. Flashback moves at an ethereal pace, piecing story elements together on its own terms.
Even before we get the answers we need to understand director Christopher MacBride’s intent, the hypnotic approach never alienates its audience during its ambitious setup and successfully enables us to get inside of Fred’s mind even though our protagonist keeps mostly to himself and appears to suffer from a paralyzing dissociation.
The drug in question is called Mercury, a psychoactive pill that Cindy and Fred used to access a sense of clarity over the “perceived senses” of reality, and to “see” all of their potential paths in life. Heavy stuff. And while Fred ventures down his own road in order to discover the actual truth, he eventually learns that perhaps we’re not meant to have unlimited choices in life that we can simply handpick to our liking, thus manipulating our own destiny. Because then that would eliminate the chance of making mistakes.
Fred must soon come to accept the path he’s chosen and the decisions he’s made – not living in the past, unless maybe to learn from the mistakes that happen to parallel the situations he’s going through in the present.
In the present day, Fred is in a happy relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Karen (Hannah Gross), and has just landed a well-paying job working as a suit-and-tie office employee. Fred and Karen are now discussing having children of their own. Although his new job pays well, he looks back at his unfulfilled dreams of being an artist and wonders what went wrong.
In an age when steady, reliable professions have become stigmatized in favor of doing what makes us happy, Flashback makes the bold decision to tell the audience it’s also okay to make safe choices sometimes, because they too can lead to happiness in other aspects of our lives. As Fred’s mother has recently lost her memory following a hematoma in her brain, Fred begins looking back at their rocky relationship, realizing that if he had pursued his dreams more aggressively then that relationship would have only gotten worse, perhaps even unfixable.
He eventually discovers that he’s not meant to have all the answers if the journey to enlightenment means sacrificing his own soul and divorcing himself from the ones who love him the most. We sense this early on when he remembers being a kid and sneaking downstairs on Christmas Eve only to find his mother filling his stocking herself and eating the cookies he left for Santa. It’s after that moment Fred realizes that all the threats of lumps of coal had been meaningless and he might as well act out, since the exploration of doing so feels better than remaining “caged.”
Flashback is reminiscent of several different movies (including, but not limited to, Memento, The Matrix, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Under the Silver Lake, with touches even of The Virgin Suicides). But MacBride, who also penned the script, ensures his film never feels exactly like any one of them by establishing his own identity through his commanding style of filmmaking. Utilizing insightful cinematography from Brendan Steacy and sharp editing by Matt Lyon, he meticulously highlights the parallels in Fred’s past and present.
Steacy and the director have a firm grasp of the camera as not only a character, but a window of perspective, with MacBride always seeming to have a perfect sense of exactly what we should be looking at and how we should be looking at it.
Where most films of this nature fall into a sense of self-indulgent stylization, Flashback keeps its intention locked in. MacBride never falls in love with his own ideas and tricks, moving on to the next just in time, keeping the focus on the storytelling first and foremost. For those who saw Mike Cahill’s Bliss from earlier this year, these two films share much of the same DNA. Where Bliss has to derail its tone to achieve its vision, Flashback remains firm the whole way through.
Flashback is a very interesting movie with creative ideas in both concept and means of getting that concept across. Writer-director Christopher MacBride creates a space for us to take them all in and decide for ourselves whether or not to accept them, never shoving any of its themes down our throats, establishing a hallucinating ambiance filled with grimy, industrial, dilapidated set pieces laden with creepy individuals. It’s like he’s put us in the monster world from the 1989 movie Little Monsters (not the 2019 Lupito Nyong’o zombie comedy) – making the entire film feel like an insidious mind trip that never falters.