Flashback Ending Explained: What Was The Final Choice?

Dylan O'Brien and Maika Monroe in Flashback

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This article contains spoilers from Flashback and its ending. Read no further if you haven't seen the Dylan O'Brien movie yet

Christopher MacBride’s film Flashback stars Dylan O’Brien as Fred Fitzell, a young man who goes back into his past looking for answers about a missing girl. It leads to a trippy tale about the illusion of time, the burden of growing up, and the choices we make, consciously or unconsciously, that define us. The Flashback ending left viewers with plenty to ponder.

The Flashback ending, and the movie in general, allows the audience to interpret it in many ways. Viewers could see the film as a story of a teen who has a bad drug trip, or as a movie about grief and mourning and the ways we try to avoid it. Flashback is all those things and more but its heart lies in the power of choice. Let’s explore the Flashback ending and why choice is such a vital part of this film’s story.

Dylan O'Brien and Liisa Repo-Martell in Flashback

What Happened At The End of Flashback

Fred has two big events coming up. As a teen, his final exam is happening, and as an adult, he has a big presentation. During both, he makes a scene then freaks out. It all clicks and he rewinds time to before both events happened. He then goes even further back to the party where Cindy (Maika Monroe) disappeared. This time, he chooses to go with her and we see him flashback to moments where he originally chose not to follow her.

We then see different versions of Cindy and Fred’s reality. In many, they are happily together exploring the world. In the current one, they’re junkies living in the party, bum house from the party where Cindy disappeared. One of the occupants of this building tells Fred that they’re almost out of Merc, so he dumpster dives--either to find stuff to sell or more Merc.

He returns to Cindy and gives her the necklace that he found in the dumpster. It has a symbol that he saw on her back in one of his realities. He then accidentally drops and breaks it. This prompts a memory of breaking his mom’s figurines as a child.

Fred visits the hospital to see his dying mother (Liisa Repo-Martell). As she tries to talk to him, he realizes that she’s the mouth that he’s been drawing. He once associated it with a monster, but he remembers how she only yelled at him as a baby to stop him from getting hurt.

She then calls his name and shows that she recognizes him. The two have a heartfelt moment, and once again Fred returns to his memory of the party with Cindy. This time, he tells her that he has to stop chasing her. She says she knows, and now all the moments where he followed her, he takes a different path.

This leads to him meeting his girlfriend Karen (Hannah Gross), expecting a child, getting a job, and excelling at his presentation. The final scene is Fred in the hospital with his mother. She passes away and we see images flash back and forth between when she holds him as a child to him crawling in her arms one last time.

Dylan O'Brien in Flashback

How Does Time Work In Flashback?

At the beginning of Flashback, time functioned in a regular linear a to b, b to c way, but as Flashback progresses, time begins to diverge. Moments in Fred’s life exist in a simultaneous way. He is both his 17-year-old teen self and his 30-year old self. The drug Merc, short for Mercury, is credited with opening up Fred’s mind to not perceive time as this straightforward thing.

Viewers especially start to see the breakdown of time when Fred picks Cindy. We see many years of them together but they all feel and look like they’re happening in the same moment and time. Fred also often jumps back and forth from his childhood to his teen years to his adult self. When we get to the Flashback ending, time seems to return to its linear form.

In an interview with Starburst Magazine, Flashback director Christopher MacBride explained that time is one of the first things people learn at a very young age. They learn that x and y lead to z. This is why Fred continues to see his mom’s mouth whenever he’s about to stray away from his path. It also happens whenever authority is telling him what to do. At first, Fred sees this as something holding him back from exploring time and his life in a new way, but realizes that she’s not this monster but someone trying to protect him.

Dylan O'Brien and Hannah Gross in Flashback

Did Fred Make The Right Choice In Flashback?

In Flashback, Fred experiences multiple choices. He first experiences the life that kind of feels forced upon him--with Karen, his job, and his dying mom. He then gets to experience a life with Cindy where he becomes an artist, sees the world, and allows Merc to destroy the concept of linear time. Ultimately, however, he chooses to go back to life with Karen, his job, and his dying mom, but he seems a lot more content with his life this time around.

He also moves forward in it, instead of being trapped between the past and present. In an interview with Buzz Mag, MacBride said that Flashback is mainly about choices.

I wanted to explore whether free will is a real thing or not. Are the choices we make because we are empowered to make them, or are there external influences controlling every choice we make?

In the first timeline, Fred lets nostalgia lead him back to the past because he’s not quite happy with his life. He has a great girlfriend, a good job, and a nice apartment but he starts to wonder if he made the wrong choices. It seems in that timeline he feels like life happened to him, and he’s just living the path that life chose for him, not the one he wants.

When he picks Cindy, he’s living a life more of his choosing, but he stays in the moment. He’s not moving forward. He then decides to go back to his other life but move forward and live it. Fred is portrayed happier because now he made the choice to live this life. He knows he could have had another life but picked this one. I believe the Flashback ending shows that it’s not about whether Fred made the right or wrong choice, it’s about the fact that he made a choice.

He’s not letting life happen to him or standing still. He’s choosing this life and moving it forward.

Dylan O'Brien in Flashback

The Importance Of Growing Up In Flashback

Much of Flashback is about growing up. Fred starts to want to find out about his high school days because he’s at a point in his life where he needs to make some major choices: future with his girlfriend, grieve his mother, excel at this new job, etc. However, Fred is having problems making choices. He can’t even do something simple like picking the tile color for his bathroom. He’s stuck between growing older and holding on to his youth.

He’s at a point in his life where he must decide what happens next, and become a fully formed adult, but instead, he goes back in time. When he sees his mother, I believe he realizes that with Cindy, he will never grow up and he wants that. That’s why he makes the choice to grow up and move on.

Unfortunately, a part of getting older is losing people in your life. In many ways, I believe his choice to diverge off his given path and find Cindy was to avoid losing his mother and having to deal with the part of growing up that involves grieving and loss. Choosing to let Cindy go also meant choosing to grow-up and choosing to let his mother go.

Flashback is one of the most interesting 2021 movies so far. It’s definitely going to have mixed reactions from audiences, but I believe it's worth watching and taking the trip. Flashback is currently available to rent or buy on demand on your favorite VOD platforms or on DVD/Blu-Ray. Rent/buy Flashback on Amazon here.

Jerrica Tisdale
Freelance Writer

Spent most of my life in various parts of Illinois, including attending college in Evanston. I have been a life long lover of pop culture, especially television, turned that passion into writing about all things entertainment related. When I'm not writing about pop culture, I can be found channeling Gordon Ramsay by kicking people out the kitchen.