After having been caught with her mother’s boyfriend, sixteen-year-old Heidi (Abbie Cornish) runs away from home. She ends up in Jindabyne (New South Wales). Irene (Lynette Curran), a motel owner, lets her stay in what was Irene’s son’s room. Heidi has a one-night stand with Joe (Sam Worthington) and goes after him when he doesn’t return her calls the next day…
Somersault, a debut feature from writer/director Cate Shortland, became the first film to win all thirteen Australian Film Institute cinema awards. (The previous record was eight, shared by Newsfront and Lantana.) Did it deserve all this acclaim? Yes, I think so. How widely I can recommend it will depend on personal taste, as in many ways, from its character-led plot and narrative strategies more akin to the arthouse than the multiplex, it certainly won’t appeal to everyone. But it’s an auspicious debut nonetheless for Shortland. Abbie Cornish it turns out I had seen before: she played the murder victim in The Monkey’s Mask. She’s actually in her early twenties but is utterly convincing as Heidi.
It would be easy, though very superficial, to see Heidi as a Lolita figure. And she is certainly childlike at times, chanting nursery rhymes to herself in one scene. But Heidi often finds herself in a frequent female trap: she’s after intimacy with other people but all she gets from men is sex. Shortland emphasises her loneliness by filming Heidi on her own in the snowy landscape (Jindabyne is a ski resort) and by recurring imagery of her looking through something – coloured plastic, panes of glass – at everyone around her, and hence being separated from them. It would also be easy to make Joe a standard-issue predatory male but he’s more complex than that, and has a few sexual issues of his own. Performances are first-rate across the board, as is Robert Humphreys’s camerawork. A word too for some imaginative sound design. Any film which makes good use of Alvin Stardust’s “My Coo-Ca Choo” has to have something going for it!
Somersault is a film in which not much seems to happen on the surface but plenty does underneath. Shortland doesn’t spell things out unnecessarily for us, and we’re invited to watch and draw our own conclusions. At the end of the film, the leading characters have learned things and changed in some ways, while we in the audience have for an hour and three quarters been absorbed in, and moved by, the lives of some all-too-real people.