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SOMERSAULT(director/writer: Cate Shortland; cinematographer: Robert Humphreys; editor: Scott Gray; music: Decoder Ring; cast: Abbie Cornish (Heidi), Sam Worthington (Joe), Lynette Curran (Irene), Erik Thomson (Richard), Nathaniel Dean (Stuart), Hollie Andrew (Bianca), Olivia Pigeot (Nicole, mother); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Anthony Anderson; Magnolia Home Entertainment; 2004-Australia)
“A psychological drama that registered with audiences and critics alike because of its heartfelt painful story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The feature film debut by western New South Wales writer and director Cate Shortland that adroitly tells of a mixed up 16-year-old’s perplexing, perilous and sensitive coming-of-age story. A psychological drama that registered with audiences and critics alike because of its heartfelt painful story, as this indie flick did itself proud in the award department in the Australian version of the Oscars (won 13 awards, including best film, director, actor and actress) and was viewed in competition at Cannes and at a number of other film festivals throughout the world including the prestigious Edinburgh Festival.

One morning the pretty blonde teen Heidi (Abbie Cornish, a 23-year-old playing a 16-year-old) hops into bed with her mother’s (Olivia Pigeot) live-in boyfriend and gets caught by her irate working-class mom kissing the idler. Feeling guilty and upset, and unsure if she would ever be forgiven, Heidi dons her backpack and leaves her low-rent Canberra (capital city where the director was raised) digs to take a bus to a rural dying foothill mountain ski resort at Lake Jindabyne, in New South Wales, where she has the phone number of a married man who once gave her a parka and told her to call if she visits. When the runaway calls, he tells her to not call again and hangs up. Feeling dejected, rejected and insecure and not wanting to be alone (something she fears most), the naive (or is it manipulative?) Heidi spends her first night in a club and then in the sack with a smarmy young tourist pickup who brushes her off in the morning as she trades sexual favors for a place to stay. She then meets the twentysomething Joe (Sam Worthington), a confident hunky local lothario who is the privileged son of a local wealthy rancher. Joe takes Heidi to a motel and in the morning also gives her the brushoff, even though he’s attracted to her and continues to see her on the sly. In the meantime Heidi takes advantage of the maternal nature of the widowed motel owner, Irene (Lynette Curran), and rents her son’s old bare room (who happens to be in prison for murdering a clerk in a convenience store stickup). The penniless Heidi also gets a counter job at the gas station’s convenience store, makes an uneasy relationship with her opposite personality young woman coworker (Hollie Andrew) and buys a pair of red gloves. Red seems to be the director’s color of choice for this production, indicating something heated is going on despite the film’s outward wintry look.

Heidi has a number of sexual encounters and her self-destructive casual sex is explained as a need for affection or just wanting to hurt herself over guilt in hurting her mom. It’s shown through a number of incidents that she doesn’t know how to manage her newly found sexual prowess nor can she distinguish between intimacy and just putting out. The vulnerable girl is on a dangerous sexual awakening odyssey, as her struggle to get a grip on herself is reflected in the beautiful but barren landscape she chooses as her battleground and in the strangers who come into her life, with some wanting only her bod—the one asset she seems sure is worth something as barter. Joe is the one person she met who seems right for her (or at least a tad more decent than the others, even though he’s too old for her). Unfortunately he has too many issues swirling around in his head to offer anything but remote possibilities in this remote community, when she needs immediate warmth and to be close to someone she can trust. The secretive Joe, who lives at home with his folks, also finds his life examined in a similar coming-of-age way as Heidi’s. He’s alienated from his peers, a heavy drinker and saddled with his own deep personal problems that might make him even more fucked-up than Heidi even if he doesn’t let this on to anyone else until he drunkenly makes a pass at his homosexual neighbor (Erik Thomson) and reveals more about himself in those few moments than in all the time we see him with Heidi.

The film surprises by not going for big surprises to reach its emotionally pleasing resolution about not being able to run away from one’s problems. Instead it allows the main characters to convincingly go it alone through this bleak and terrifying period in their life as basically decent people stumbling blindly along among mostly insensitive types in their search for their identity, in dealing with their inner hurts and in trying to come to terms with their need for intimacy. Though it may seem exploitative in parts (i.e., Heidi doing an erotic dance in her skivvies), overall it’s handled in an intelligent and thought-provoking way.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”