A first feature from writer-director Cate Shortland, Somersault captures the self-hatred and self-destructive tendencies of adolescence confusedly seeking acceptance, forgiveness and finally maturity in the insular small towns of Australia. Selected for the thirty-fourth edition of New Directors/New Films, presented by the Museum of Modern Art’s Film and Media Department and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, it last year swept all thirteen Australian Film Institute Awards, including Best Film, Direction, Original Screenplay, Lead Actor and Lead Actress.
The small town in question is New South Wales ski resort Jindabyne, population 4,400 in the Australian Alps not far from Canberra. Into it drifts sixteen-year-old blonde runaway Heidi (Abbie Cornish, five years older than her first feature lead’s character). Despite its supposed inspiration, and seven-year gestation, in “a combination of landscape and disturbed children,” the result hardly reflects the “haunting beauty” of Oz’s physical presence. Winter drizzle and snow, denuded trees whizzing by seen from below, frosted breath, in reduced depth of field and bland, off-color stock, may be intended to keep at center stage the human drama, interior and enacted in interiors captured handheld and through a blue filter with the odd red highlight.
In some way in the mind of the young protagonist, the story betrays its conceptual origin as a short film, and it fails and flails mightily in that motivation is never allowed to develop. Outside the film, writer-director and actress imagined something about the standard standby of an absent father and drug-involved mother, but inside there is no reason, aside from hormonal curiosity or jealousy, for Heidi’s coarse sex-grab for still-young mother Nicole’s (Olivia Pigeot) boyfriend. Mum surprises them, of course blows up, and, following an unsatisfactory phone call to a man, daughter boards a bus for nowhere but descends in Jindabyne.
With little money and less purpose, she drifts from ski-apparel to fast-food to convenience stores, then on to hangout bars, not so slyly inviting every available male along the way. There is something unsettling in the easy availability of the vacuous-faced teenager -- this could have wound up a slasher flick -- and men uncomfortably shy away or else take instant advantage and then bolt.
The girl strikes one as not so much searching and lonely, as the film would have it, but just demented and possibly dangerous, while she extemporaneously reinvents her past and person. Quickly discarded by a one-night stand (among the bunk beds of his travel companions, who share the trailer but not the sex), she goes back to the same bar and rather forces herself on dark, dubious Joe (Sam Worthington), the not especially together son of wealthy local cattle ranchers. He skedaddles in the morning, but, all innocence, she wheedles a flat from kindly Siesta Inn Motel owner Irene (Lynette Curran) and a job alongside Bianca (Hollie Andrew) at The Shop of a BP petrol station, then telephones Joe at all hours. Amidst unnecessary close-ups, at least not of faces but of fingers, coffee mugs and glasses of beer, burner flames, ornaments and flushing toilets, the two become more than casually related, though it's anybody's guess what the attraction is.
They turn into their incomprehensible world together. He drops his habitual mates and bachelor partying; and, sexually attracted but wary, ski-shop owner Roy (Paul Gleeson) shows her the man-made lake which drowned a town, warns her away from Bianca and family, and, to make sure of the rupture, spreads a lie.
But no one opens to others or to us. They are scared, yes, but story does not function without some depth of communication. Only two characters are rounded enough to be vulnerable and yet complete: Heidi strikes out to hurt Irene, but the quiet woman bears her personal cross and thus can bring the girl to acceptance; and virile Richard (Erik Thomson), a local now living in Sydney whose prior ten years in Paris gave him the assurance to live his own homosexuality, and whose understated strength Joe mistakes for come-on.
What is passed off as love may well end forever, or may rekindle with maturity. But its period in Somersault, and its confusion and shallowness, do not lead one to care.
(Released by Magnolia Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)