Working in the customer service industry can be a lot of things. Boring and frustrating are two of the top words that come to mind when thinking about it. I have had to work in customer service in one form or another for the past–what feels like–forever because let me just say, if you like a living wage, choosing a path as a creative writer is not necessarily the field to go into. But this is not an essay about my own career failures, as delightful as that might be for someone to read. This is, however, the setting in which we first meet Melinda (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), the protagonist of Mike Gan’s Burn. She’s a clerk at the bustling gas station, Paradise Pumps.
Unlike some people who work in customer service, Melinda actually seems to enjoy working at Paradise Pumps. She doesn’t mind cleaning the bathroom or stocking the shelves when the person on the previous shift didn’t do it. She gets great joy out of helping customers. Then there is her co-worker, Sheila (Suki Waterhouse), who does the bare minimum at her job and seems to be there mainly to hit on the male customers. She’s often hit on in return by harmless well-meaning yet creepy men, such as Fred (Wayne Pyle) who brings her some shoe insoles after she complains about her foot pain to him. Melinda is not too fond of Sheila, and the feeling is mutual. Melinda has a crush on a cop that comes by regularly, Officer Liu (Harry Shum Jr.); however, she’s shy and is therefore jealous whenever Sheila flirts with him.
“…she goes to the back and upon returning realizes that Billy is trying to rob the gas station.”
On this particular evening, things are going as usual, until a man named Billy (Josh Hutcherson) shows up and parks next to Melinda in the parking lot. He comes up to the door and greets Melinda kindly. She tries to be as helpful as she can to him until she goes to the back and upon returning realizes that Billy is trying to rob the gas station. Sheila is not having any of it, taunting him for robbing a gas station since most of the customers now pay with credit cards. Billy is in some trouble with a gang of bikers. Things go south quickly, and it becomes complicated when Sheila’s boyfriend, Perry (Shiloh Fernandez) and Officer Liu return to the gas station in the midst of all the chaos.
Instead of spelling the whole plot out for you, I’ll say that things get weird. Or, more accurately, we find out exactly how weird Melinda is. For example, she loves to stick her fingers in the coffee pot right after the coffee is brewed because she enjoys burning herself. Then there’s the part where she tries to convince Billy to take her with him. Then there’s even more incredibly weird stuff to come. Burn is Clerks meets Carrie, minus the pyrokinesis, but not without fire.
“Clerks meets Carrie, minus the pyrokinesis, but not without fire.”
Tilda Cobham-Hervey is magnificent as the socially awkward and perhaps a little psychotic gas station clerk who’s just looking for a change in her boring day to day life. Josh Hutcherson is also incredible as Billy, the would-be robber of Paradise Pumps.
There are themes touching on power dynamics between men and women and what it’s like when the roles are reversed. In some ways, Melinda is a hero, but in many other ways, she is more of a criminal than Billy. Billy becomes the victim in a situation he thought would be much easier to handle. Burn is an incredibly impressive debut feature from Mike Gan. The film is fast and tight and hits all the beats perfectly. There is literally never a dull moment, and it’s safe for me to say that Burn is one of my favorite films of the year thus far. I’m looking forward to see what the rest of you think.