There are lots of ways to grow up. The method offered by Somersault is to do something awful and then flee from it. This dreamy, sexy and rather chilly coming-of-age story from Australia captures a teenager's attempt to escape her past, to build something new atop the rubble of what came before and ultimately to hide it. What the young woman learns is what everyone learns: It can't be done.
Writer-director Cate Shortland faces no small challenge; her heroine, Heidi (gorgeous newcomer Abbie Cornish), is both passive and tough, blurry and angelic, confused and concealed. She's wonderful to watch but difficult to love, since she only occasionally strives for what she wants. The rest of the time, she lets the world deliver what it will. So while Somersault will never lose your interest, it will occasionally test your patience, as you wait for Heidi to snap out of her reverie and take a stand.
The film opens with Heidi seducing her mother's boyfriend, a move she later refers to as having "kissed" him--a euphemism issuing from denial. Heidi's mother walks in and busts them both, and, after pleading hysterically and being pushed away, Heidi heads to the bus station. Her destination is the mountain ski town of Jindabyne, set on a shimmering lake. Once there, she finds a club, dances with the first boy who smiles at her and heads home with him. Lodging problem solved, at least for a night.
Written and directed by Cate Shortland. Starring Abbie Cornish, Sam Worthington and Lynette Curran. Opens Friday.
From there it's on to the next boy, a brooding brunette named Joe (Sam Worthington). For Heidi, this one's a keeper, no doubt because he won't have sex with her immediately and because he's silent and mysterious and difficult (and an alcoholic). When he won't return her calls, she rehearses conversations with him, striking poses and kissing herself in the mirror. Meanwhile, Heidi is befriended by Irene (Lynette Curran), the motherly proprietor of a motel, and given a flat to stay in. A job at a gas station provides a bit of income, and a young woman who works there a potential friend.
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It's a life, of sorts. But what makes it all interesting, even bewitching is the painterly cinematography of Robert Humphreys, who employs various lighting techniques to alternate between hues of blue, red, and yellow/green; exterior scenes are almost always icy and interiors warm, bringing us into Jindabyne's--and Heidi's--climate. Heidi's defenses sheathe her in a layer of frost that hides the fire within: Beneath the sex is shame. And there's a kind of loose focus, a fuzzy daydream feeling to Somersault--an outward expression of what's happening internally for the characters. Both Heidi and Joe are too young and too lost to see clearly.
Carefully, slowly, Shortland reminds us that Heidi is still a child. For all of her sexual posturing, she also loves unicorns and glitter and is transfixed by toys and children's songs and rhymes, which she recites after sex with Joe. (The film's title suggests a childish tumble.) During one key moment, Heidi finds a pair of red-tinted ski goggles in a trash heap and tries them on, lending her world a rosy glow. When Joe does it in a later scene, with a red wine glass, we're meant to see a reason for their connection. But isn't it just conveniently translucent for them both?
Any film about two people who can't face their feelings risks coming off cold, and Somersault does feel remote much of the time. About a half-hour in, when the point of view changes from Heidi's to Joe's, we expect to get a handle on why he's such a stone. But even though he has an inert father and stupid friends, there's not much by way of explanation. In a sense, the same goes for Heidi: Sure, she shouldn't have hooked up with her mother's boyfriend, but what were the stakes? Had her mother been with him for a while? Was her relationship with Mom already strained? When did sexuality become Heidi's relational milieu of choice? It's hard to know whether her move to the mountains is truly warranted or merely an act of teenage opera. We're meant to take both protagonists' behavior as givens; but if doing so keeps us in an intoxicating dream state for much of the film, it occasionally also leaves us feeling empty.
Somersault has other faults, particularly in its overplaying of symbols. But its sleepy sexuality and artful cinematography give it an appealingly moody grace. And the final emotional release, in which Heidi at last breaks through to the burning beneath, is nothing short of cleansing.