Somersault | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, February 20th, 2024  


Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Written and directed by: Cate Shortland; Starring: Abbie Cornish, Sam Worthington, Lynette Curran

Apr 08, 2006 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Australian director Cate Shortland’s feature-length debut Somersault is a treasure, one of those rare, intimate films that quietly begins to envelop you with its opening images and then lingers indefinitely after the theater lights have come up. From its dreamy, blue-toned title sequence, Somersault glides along with an exquisite, sometimes heavenly, aura that is grounded by human frailty and earthly turmoil. Innocence is pierced with heartbreak, betrayal and guilt, but the film retains its wide-eyed beauty all the same, in instances of both elation and despair. Vital to the film’s arresting visual allure and its emotional leverage is its young star, Abbie Cornish, in a performance that at once mesmerizes and clutches the heart.

Cornish plays 16-year-old Heidi, the daughter of Nicole (Olivia Pigeot), a young, working mom who can be found at a bar on a weeknight. Heidi is a watchful girl of few words, one who’s compelled to touch objects or surfaces that catch her eye. She collects scraps and little souvenirs and thinks nothing of reaching out to fiddle with the necklace that her mom is wearing. On a rainy winter morning, when Heidi thinks Nicole has left their home, she comes on to her mom’s shirtless boyfriend Adam (Damian De Montemas), first by asking to feel his tattoo. When Nicole returns unannounced, she happens upon Heidi and Adam kissing in bed. Nicole rushes out livid. Instantly remorseful, Heidi manages to approach her mom, but Nicole shoves her away. Petrified and in tears, Heidi struggles to raise her arms toward her mom, inching toward her as if on eggshells, but Nicole instructs her to get away and not say anything.

Too scared and ashamed to face the aftermath, Heidi takes a bus out of town to the tourist ski location Jindabyne, where she hopes to meet up with Eddie, a boy who once told her to call when she visited. But when she phones him, he tells her to not call back. With money running out and no other friends nearby, Heidi must find a job and lodging. She hooks up with a boy at a bar, and they spend the night in a mobile home shared with his friends. But the next morning, he tells Heidi that his group is leaving for Sydney. When she asks him if she can tag along, one of the friends harshly breaks the news that he has a girlfriend.

One of the remarkable aspects of Cornish’s portrayal of Heidi is how she captures the look of a girl who might be lost and vulnerable, but contemplating her next move rather than appearing desperate. Heidi spots a much older man staring at her from his car, and she stands up to move in closer, making herself available to him, so to speak. But she says nothing, remaining motionless in her soft blue parka. The man then is joined by his wife and they drive off without acknowledging Heidi.

What fuels Heidi in these moments of solitude and rejection are
her newfound independence and the spectacle of the snowy Lake Jindabyne landscape. Shortland explores the terrain with a captivated eye, often from Heidi’s point of view; occasionally she directs the camera skyward to catch sight of trees stripped bare by the season. Gazing upon the lake, out the window of a local pub, Heidi is approached by Joe (Sam Worthington), a young farmer who spotted her dancing the night before. Ice-breaking conversation and a bit of flirtation lead to nothing initially, but Heidi sets her sights on Joe. She returns to the pub that night, and Shortland reveals the gravity of Heidi’s intention by photographing her in a ladies room mirror in slo-mo, as Heidi checks her hair and lipstick, sizing herself up against the girl next to her.

Joe tells Heidi that she looks nice, but bids her good night before long. She follows him outside the pub and, rather than getting his attention with words, uses the tactic that failed with the older man in the car: she plants herself in view of Joe’s truck headlights. Determined, she jumps inside the truck without invitation and tells Joe that she wants to come home with him. Joe is dubious and takes her to an inn instead, where they sleep together, before he returns home to his wealthy family’s farm outside of town. Heidi becomes attached and begins phoning Joe there, but to his ambivalence. In time, she becomes friendly with the inn’s owner Irene (Lynette Curran), fibs that her mom has passed away, and secures a flat to rent from Irene, whose husband died a year earlier. After getting hired at a BP gas station, Heidi begins to sense that, with a new lover, a home and a job, a fresh life has been set in motion. But unbeknownst to her, Joe has been living a confused, directionless life and has no intention of allowing their sexual liaisons to develop into a serious relationship.

To empathize with Heidi’s heartache, Shortland first makes us intimate with her, embellishing her emotions with a variety of filmic devices. After Heidi’s first night with Joe, she buys a pair of red gloves at the BP; subsequently we see Heidi marching alone by the lake at a brisk pace, playing paddy cake with her new gloves. On the soundtrack her playground chant about a girl who’s lost her mother overlaps, heightening the sensation of her recent thrill. And we take in the loveliness of isolated moments amid the wintry surroundings—leaves rustling on the ground in slo-mo, a perspective through burgundy-colored goggles as Heidi raises them to her eyes.

Shortland also makes Heidi palpable by proximity; there’s a consistent sensory dynamic that runs throughoutSomersault, and Heidi’s hands serve almost as characters themselves. We press our noses to the pages of her scrapbook/diary to see the candy wrappers she’s glued to them, watch her caress the glittery mane of a unicorn rendering on a card, and take a peek at birthday wishes from her mom. On her first night with Joe at the inn, Heidi remarks, “I can see your breath.” Minutes later, he puts his hand to her wrist and neck and says, “I can feel your pulse.” Early in the film, Heidi’s mom gives her a hug and says, “Mmm, your hair smells good.” In a softhearted moment, Irene asks Heidi, “Where’d you get all that lovely hair?” before giving it a couple touches. Heidi replies, “I don’t know, my mom maybe.” In Cornish’s most endearing sequence, she plays out an imaginary scene with Joe, in front of a mirror, deepening her voice to deliver his lines. She and the camera slowly move in toward the mirror, she purses her lips and whispers, “I love you so much,” before giving her reflection a kiss.

Shortland and Cornish work in an extraordinary rhythmic tandem to visually express the feelings Heidi internalizes. Heidi explains to Joe that when she likes someone, she will look at them, and Cornish provides Heidi a lovelorn stare that stops time. When Heidi is given a name tag at the BP, it’s a badge of accomplishment and acceptance in her eyes, and Cornish restrains Heidi’s smiles with wonderful subtlety. Other times, director and actress speak at once to more dramatic effect: when Heidi is hurt by her co-worker’s insinuations, she, at a loss for words, unleashes a scream, upon which Shortland cuts to Heidi spraying a water hose at the camera full blast.

One of Somersault’s shortfalls is that Heidi’s age is not clearly established, and since Cornish was 21 when Somersault was filmed, it’s not obvious to the eye that Heidi is 16.* This fact might surprise viewers in the U.S. who notice the ease with which she frequents bars and is served alcohol. The film works regardless of Heidi’s age, but her sexual pursuits, coupled with her impetuous and sometimes inexplicable behavior, are perhaps more poignant if they can be attributed to inexperience and lack of perspective. Self-destructive acts of abasement are by no means exclusive to teens, but when someone begins to intuit their own loss of innocence, the guilt and perception of irreversibility can weigh especially heavy. Heidi feels that she’s committed a punishable crime against her mother, and concludes that her mom never wants to see her again. Heidi tells Joe, “I’ve done bad things.” When she sheepishly confesses her sin to Joe, who is older, she can’t bear to tell him the whole truth, instead saying that she kissed her friend’s boyfriend. Expecting something far worse, Joe replies, “Is that it?”

Prior to filming Somersault, Shortland had won awards for some short films, two of which (Flowergirl and Joy) she shot with Somersault cinematographer Robert Humphreys, which might explain how a first-time director can exhibit such a startling command of sensuous imagery, while still exuding a beginner’s penchant for experiment and discovery. Shortland will shoot a drinking fountain in slo-mo or a close-up of a flame on a burner if it’s to her liking. As Heidi’s riding her bus to Jindabyne, Shortland includes flashes of yellow light that suggest that the film stock ran out during the shot.** But Shortland remains faithful to the storytelling in using these tools. Heidi and Joe enter a Chinese restaurant in slo-mo, which makes for a dramatic entrance, but the purpose is to highlight Joe pushing Heidi’s hand away from his when she tries to hold it.

Handheld photography was employed for the film, but there is none of the contrived shakiness that typifies faux edginess. Shortland and Humphreys recognize the power of stillness and the poetry of motion, and many scenes are constructed with premeditated care. Dark interior hues of blue and orange contrast effectively with the monochromatic shots caught in the natural light of the icy outdoors. There’s a striking collision of color-saturated images when a blue-lighted shot of Heidi, glaring in the backseat of her mom’s car, with raindrops glistening on the window in yellow, is cut to a red-filtered interior close-up of Heidi’s bare legs. Other times, Heidi’s lips offer the only dashes of contrasting color when pale blue dominates the frame.

Somersault, which screened as an Official Selection at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, swept the Australian Film Institute Awards (the Australian Oscars) for 2004, winning all 13 of its nominated categories—a first—including Best Film, Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Lead Actress. Worthington, who plays Joe with the rugged, pent-up anxiousness mastered by fellow Aussies Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe, also won as Best Lead Actor. Even Sydney band Decoder Ring picked up an AFI award for its gentle, ambient score, which correlates Heidi’s turns of fate to her expeditions through Jindabyne.

Skillfully and lovingly crafted from start to finish, Somersault is too quiet, too personal and too cinematic to cause such a major splash on U.S. shores. Although fictional license is
apparent here and there—characters make well-timed entrances, for instance—the film’s resolution rings so true that it doesn’t seem as if a story has ended, but that a memory has been ingrained.

During a scene in which Joe has had too much to drink, he talks to a family friend about Heidi and confesses, “When you leave, you still feel her on your skin.” In its own way, Somersault leaves an impression just as strong.

Somersault opens in Los Angeles and New York on April 21.

Author rating: 9/10

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