Aussie film portrays a painful coming-of-age story
When teenage impulsiveness intersects with the discovery that sex gives you power, the results can be a disaster. In the case of Heidi, a 16-year-old from Canberra, the Australian capital, this combination proves explosive enough to make her run off to Lake Jindabyne, a ski resort area, after coming on to her mother’s live-in boyfriend in the first ten minutes of “Somersault.” As she refers to the incident later, her mother “looked at me like she didn’t know me anymore”—so devastating is the extent of her new power.
While very much still a girl, Heidi’s a quick study. Seeing how her mother’s boyfriend was more than willing to go after jailbait, she immediately finds a one-night stand in Jindabyne to give herself a bed for the night. After two unsuccessful come-ons, she winds up with Joe, who pays for a night at a motel. She quickly convinces the motel owner, Irene, to let her stay. She winds up renting a flat vacated by Irene’s incarcerated son, and she gets herself a job at a BP mini-mart, and even makes a friend—almost—with Bianca, her sullen co-worker.
People are quick to judge Heidi. Bianca’s step-father, one of the men Heidi propositioned early on, warns her away from the family, telling her she’s “the wrong type of girl.” When Joe’s friends find out she is working at the mini-mart, they laugh her off as unworthy of their company. But there is a lot more to Heidi than meets these provincial eyes.
“Somersault” is very much the story of surfaces and what’s underneath, and director Cate Shortland is able to bring out this duality in her cinematography, thematic development, and her cast. Shortland imbues her indoor shots with vivid colors, while using either dull blues or near-blinding overexposures on many of the outdoor shots, mirroring the harshness some of these characters are feeling. A lot of the action in the film takes place at night though, and some of the most magical shots of Heidi offset her lit against the darkness, with twinkling snowflakes falling around her.
Heidi is far from being a self-serving slut the description here might imply. She’s reeling from her own misstep back home, yet keeping a girlish scrapbook and reciting jump-rope rhymes to herself by day while making more mistakes at night. Things come to a head one night when she almost winds up with two boys, and gets evicted for wandering drunk and naked in Irene’s parking lot.
Joe, her almost-boyfriend, is not all that sure of himself either, despite his wealthy background. When pushed for a report on their status by Heidi, he gives her a bullshit answer that prompts her to drink a whole dish of chili sauce as payment for his standoffishness. In that one evening, Joe takes her home and cares for her, goes to a party where he gets into a fight with a friend, and winds up visiting Richard, a gay neighbor who is only back briefly to pack up his late parents’ home. Joe feels an affinity toward Richard because they have similar backgrounds, but Richard, who now lives in France, has seen the world, whereas Joe has outgrown the only pond he knows.
“Somersault” is all about intimacy, and how hard it is to sustain it. Heidi discovers that just because someone’s willing to have sex with you doesn’t mean you’re intimate with them. Joe, whom we almost always see with a drink or a bottle in hand, begins to see the consequences of his withdrawn nature, and that getting drunk is no way to hide from involvement with other people.
Shortland underscores this flight from intimacy in several ways. Bianca’s brother, Carl, has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that leaves him high-functioning but unable to read people’s emotions, or to control what he might say to upset them. Ironically, many of the people in Jindabyne are a lot like Carl. When Bianca suddenly rejects Heidi on Roy’s say so, we don’t see the whole confrontation, but we do see Heidi hosing down the mini-mart window while Bianca cries behind it.
We also learn that the remnants of an old town are still there, under Lake Jindabyne, which was created by artificial flooding. Shortland also uses handheld camera throughout the movie, so expertly, that you often don’t realize she’s doing it, creating a very up-close look at these uptight folks. And again, using vivid colors and lighting helps set people apart, like a yellow, drained looking Heidi against a pink background.
It’s a shame that it’s taken two years for “Somersault” to finally debut here, and it’s clear why it’s won so many awards since it first premiered in 2004. Abbie Cornich as Heidi and Sam Worthington as Joe both give outstanding performances. I wouldn’t be surprised if five years from now, their names become as common as Kate Winslet’s and Russell Crowe’s are today.