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Somersault   B

Magnolia Pictures / Red Carpet Productions

Year Released: 2004 (USA: 2006)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Cate Shortland
Writer: Cate Shortland
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Sam Worthington, Lynette Curran, Erik Thomson, Nathaniel Dean, Hollie Andrew, Leah Purcell, Olivia Pigeot.

Review by Rob Vaux

Coming-of-age stories are a dime a dozen, but it takes bravery and skill to make one with the thoughtfulness of Somersault. Writer-director Cate Shortland embraces subtlety and silence in painting her canvas, creating a challenging texture that requires audience discipline to sit back and absorb. Not everyone will take to such a delicate tone -- particularly teenage girls, who stand to appreciate its message the most -- but those who do will find real beauty in its quiet strengths.

Shortland's insight gives considerable weight to the unspoken, and to the guilt, shame, and redemption that lie beneath the film's dialogue. Such are the emotions that drive the sexual awakening of her young Australian protagonist Heidi (Abbie Cornish) who, in a moment of desire, canoodles with her mother's boyfriend on the bed of their modest apartment. Upon discovery, she is cast out by her horrified mother, who refuses to even look at the girl in the midst of her condemnatory shrieks. Heidi finds herself adrift and homeless before eventually wandering into a resort town, where she secures a nominal job at a convenience store and lodgings with a sympathetic hotel owner (Lynette Curran). Amid the transitory young tourists and working-class shopkeepers, she begins a bout of halting promiscuity, driven by the agony of her mother's rejection and the need to form a lasting human connection with someone... anyone.

Shortland develops the girl's dilemma in achingly sympathetic terms, relying on Cornish's fine performance to convey Heidi's mixture of desperation and worthlessness. Her slow climb out of that pit -- of realizing who she is and what she's going through -- is no easy thing. At times, it can be quite trying, since the silence of the soundtrack and the deliberate banality of the surroundings provides little in the way of emotional buoyancy. We're fixated solely on the contents of Heidi's head, delivered with surprising nuance but requiring steadfast attention to follow. As a psychological portrait, it's indelible. As a filmgoing experience, however, it definitely requires patience.

Some relief is provided with the appearance of Joe (Sam Worthington), a local boy who takes a shine to Heidi, and whose quiet romance provide a crucible for her confused feelings. Worthington is bright and engaging, creating sparks with Cornish while adding a refreshing counterpoint to the heroine's feelings. But to Somersault's credit, it doesn't use him as salvation or suggest that Heidi just needs a good man to "fix" her. Indeed, the depredations of most of the men around her are drawn in scathing tones, from the dipshit ski bums who see her as just another shag to the local dirty old men who are happy to ogle her but don't want her mixing with their daughters. Joe represents solace only because he treats her as a human being, not because his inherent nobility is the cure for all her ills. Rather, its Curran's Irene, the hotel owner with wounds of her own to close, who ultimately provides Heidi with the absolution she requires to discover herself.

The journey wouldn't be possible without Shortland's commitment to her subject. The character study she creates is fragile, compassionate, and surprisingly complex, while maintaining a fierce lock on the emotional truths of adolescence. For all the long patches of seeming inactivity, we find ourselves caring deeply about Heidi, and sharing the catharsis of her growth and healing. On a more simplistic level, the film provides a look at a part of Australia that we rarely see in the movies, lending interest to its unexceptional locale on novelty value alone. That may not be enough to entice some into the theaters, but Somersault has a way of getting under your skin. The finale arrives with grace and power, providing an exquisite bloom that wouldn't be the same without the slow, gradual buildup that precedes it. Sometimes, good filmmaking isn't always entertaining. Its rewards arrive through more hidden but no less fulfilling means.

Review published 04.30.2006.

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