This is a film you don’t spoil, so I won’t. Welcome to Flashback, a movie somehow about time travel (kinda), drugs (kinda) and letting go of what you know as you become an adult. Written and directed by Christopher MacBride, the sci-fi thriller drags its audience through an unsettling rabbit hole of discovery that profoundly alters the way its leads—Dylan O’Brien and Maika Monroe—view their world and their choices. In turn, the film poses those questions to its viewers, and they aren’t easy topics to grapple with. Neither is the movie itself, really; it is a labor, but not without its rewards.
Fred Fitzell (O’Brien) is an average guy walking headfirst into an average life, complete with an office job, new home and fiancée. When he starts having visions of a former classmate (Monroe) who went missing before graduation, he becomes obsessed with figuring out what happened to her—and she seemingly leads him to the inconceivable answer, which unravels everything he built for himself since he last saw her. In turn, the journey becomes as Earth-shattering to us as it is to him. In order to achieve that effect, it’s clear the intent was to have the audience feel as disoriented as Fred throughout the film.
Though Flashback’s foreshadowing is a bit cluttered and at times messy, the lead-up to the film’s climax is purposefully, puzzlingly cerebral—but the climax itself is, well, nearly as satisfying as an orgasm. Sorry, but it’s true. It’s a reveal that weaves together three dominant tropes (to name them would be a spoiler, in a way) bizarrely, yet nicely. MacBride executes the moment with quick cuts and striking imagery that likens itself to that one horrific scene in Fire in the Sky. But the central truth we learn during the reveal is what will really make you gasp and draw you in; it asks you, like it asks Fred, to question your reality and tells you why. The minute details are scarce but, truthfully, they aren’t necessary to shake you to your core and leave you feeling surveilled and shaken. But MacBride packages the knowledge in a way that doesn’t understate how ultimately spectacular it is and, in turn, it elicits a strange sense of hope. Or understanding. Or acceptance of the confusion and causality of life. There’s a lot of emotions there and I feel they may be different for every individual who watches.
I will admit, I had to watch the film a few times in order to decide how I felt about it. It’s not an easy movie to digest or dissect, and you really do have to turn your phone off and pay attention. It also benefits from multiple viewings: My opinions changed after my second and third watches; I picked up on things I had missed when I saw it for the first time. But this also leads me to believe this film won’t be for everyone, so don’t @ me if it doesn’t work for you. It nearly didn’t for me. Sit with it for a while.
What’s clear is that you can’t really discuss Flashback without praising O’Brien. In the last 30 minutes of the film, he runs the gamut of blunt human emotion bathed in existentialism as he lives many vastly different yet eerily similar lives. His performance really made me reflect on the fact that, despite always being stupid good in everything he does, O’Brien is consistently underrated and, frankly, just not in enough pictures. This movie gives him a chance to really flex his muscles and go deep in an emotionally complex performance. It’s his Teen Wolf role on a bad trip. In Flashback, he is forced to confront his feelings through a different lens, housed in a similar container. As for Monroe, she came off a little too Manic Pixie Dream Girl for me—but I don’t really see that to be her fault, as it’s clear the problem is in the writing much more so than the performance. She can play dreamy and mysterious—she proved that during her breakout in It Follows. However, it almost feels as though MacBride saw the David Robert Mitchell film and told her, “Give me that again.” I understand the allure of that type of character—it’s romantic and there’s an obvious attraction between her and O’Brien’s characters—but it’s a disservice to what Monroe is capable of.
Within its wealth of mystery, Flashback was built to be open to interpretation. No concept presented is entirely justified and questions are laid bare in the movie’s wake. The ending could be viewed in a lot of different ways, but the film wants us to wrestle with accepting reality and the ways we slot ourselves inside of it. Fred encounters more than one event that shatters his preconceived reality in this film—but it’s in how he approaches them that he changes. He holds onto the last tethers of what he knew (such a human impulse) before accepting what he has learned, as illustrated by touching bookends involving his mother, who is suffering from a degenerative disease. We live and die by our loved ones. We live and die by our experiences. We live and die by the questions we keep asking, and how they shape our personal worlds.
Flashback certainly isn’t perfect, and despite the effort it took to fully immerse myself in the narrative in a way that made sense, there is something admirable about the message it wants to put out in the world. Flashback ends up being a question in its own way, a fitting bit of punctuation at the end of a timely sentence: How do we quantify our love and our lives in a complicated world we may never fully understand? That’s your query to answer, so get thinking.
Director: Christopher MacBride
Writers: Christopher MacBride
Stars: Dylan O’Brien, Maika Monroe, Hannah Gross
Release Date: June 4, 2021
Lex Briscuso is an entertainment, film and culture writer with bylines at Life & Style, In Touch Weekly, Shudder’s The Bite and EUPHORIA. She spends too much time thinking about One Direction and the leftover moments writing poetry, fiction and screenplays. Her horror radio show, YOUR NICHE IS DEAD, is live Mondays 5pm ET only on KPISSFM. She tweets @nikonamerica.