Comfortably settling into adulthood, recently landing a prominent corporate job and planning the next steps with longtime girlfriend Karen (Hannah Gross), Frederick Fritzell (Dylan O’Brien) finds his seemingly perfect life plagued by buried memories of a highschool colleague. Fred remembers her name, Cindy (Maika Monroe), and a handful of fleeting, scrambled moments. Other than that, the young man can find no cohesion in the frantic recollections, his quest driving him deeper and deeper into a rabbit hole that is just as dangerous as it is puzzling. 

A creative mind turned cynical (“Dreams of youth, I guess” he tells his employer about his Visual Arts degree), Frederick compulsively sketches the woman in his dreams, growing increasingly obsessed. Cindy, a rebellious teen whose company Fred shared for a limited amount of time in school, is as elusive as the man’s memories, escaping him through crowded halls and shadowy corners. The further Fred gets into the story, the more fearful he becomes, entirely convinced that Cindy is in danger. In search of answers, he reaches out to old school friends, igniting dorment connections that do more harm than good. 

It doesn’t take long for Fred to find out about a drug that ravaged the school during his time, one that he partook in and yet had forgotten about, Mercury. Shaped as a pill, Mercury looks like your regular party drug, however, it is far from it. Whenever we see the small black and white pill, the images are followed by dark, underground facilities and nameless, heavily tattooed figures that intimidate without providing any further clarification. Fred’s world, neatly groomed, is no longer. 

Originally titled The Education of Frederick Fritzell, Flashback is a labour of love and it shows. It took director Christopher MacBride almost a decade to take the project off the ground after the mild success of his first feature, 2012’s The Conspiracy. Reminiscent of titles such as Limitless, The Matrix and Inception, Flashback is an assured take on parallel realities that seeks not to replicate the success of previous formulas but to stand on its own feet as a study of the elasticity of time and the plethora of individual perceptions. 

Brendan Steacy’s poised cinematography plays with spaces and angles to amp paranoia as Matt Lion’s editing further bends the divide between present and past, creating an atmosphere that is precisely claustrophobic. The script avoids your typical sci-fi potholes, offering just enough to keep the viewer on their toes as it steers clear from condescending over-explanations.  

Memory, here a central theme, is explored not only through Fred’s lack of a grasp on his own recollections, but through his mother’s decaying health. The woman, living at an end of life assisted facility, has reached a point where she can’t even recognise her own son. The further Fred moves away from the life he built, battling a growing sense of detachment, the tighter he clings to the woman, searching for an anchor amidst the storm that is bound to engulf him.

Dylan O’Brien, most famously known for the young adult saga Maze Runner and the TV series Teen Wolf, went from teen heartthrob to a years-long slump of being criminally underlooked. Lately, however, the actor seems to have found his groove once again, recently starring on the delightful Netflix apocalyptic comedy Love and Monsters and set to act alongside Mark Wahlberg and Chiwetel Ejiofor in Antoine Fuqua’s Infinite. In Flashback, O’Brien gives his best performance to date, balancing the composure of a young man on the brink of a big break and the ravaging psychosis that threatens to take it all away. Here, we no longer get the signature doe eyes and charming quirkiness that brought the actor to teen stardom. What we see is a performer ready to move onto bigger challenges and the timing couldn’t have been better.

Initially unassuming, Flashback turns out to be a mind-bending delight. MacBride confidently crafts a story that is as narratively as it is visually rich, making it easy for one to understand why he fought tooth and nail to get it done according to his vision. Happy to say the patience paid off. 

Rating: ★★

Vertigo Releasing presents Flashback on digital platforms from 4 June, 2021