Showing remarkable economy in her feature debut, Cate Shortland establishes the world of her young protagonist, Heidi, with a series of short scenes that move us straight into the heart of the film. We learn that Heidi's mother lingers too long, and apparently too often, at the local bar, that her live-in boyfriend puts up with her indifference in exchange for a place to sleep and watch TV, and that Heidi understands the situation enough to take advantage of it. When her mother catches her seducing her boyfriend, Heidi runs off to a ski resort where she hopes she can find a job, a lover, a place of her own. She discovers she has to grow up first.
Shortland, who wrote as well as directed Somersault, compresses a lot of story into this character study of a teenager on the cusp of womanhood. She uses her camera stylishly but unselfconsciously, deftly employing visual motifs that in more clumsy hands would be cloying. Her narrative feints never feel contrived. Most impressively, she knows how to bring her film to closure without closing off interpretation, and without over-inflating its meanings and implications. In a phrase, Somersault is a well-wrought if modest movie that lingers with you longer than many more ambitious pictures.
That said, it should be noted that Somersault won a record 13 Australian Film Institute Awards, with Best Actress going to Abbie Cornish (soon to be seen opposite Heath Ledger in Candy) for her performance in the lead role. Cornish imbues Heidi with an unpredictable mixture of precocity and immaturity, a girl aware of her sexuality and eager to experiment, yet desperate for reassurance. As she admits after one (of many) misguided attempts to connect with someone, she can't bear to be alone-the modern ailment afflicting children left to grow up on their own.
Shortly after Heidi arrives at Lake Jindabyne, a resort in the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales, she meets Joe (Sam Worthington), son of a wealthy rancher. Joe reluctantly takes her to a hotel for the night-she has no place to go, he still lives with his parents-where Heidi awakens the maternal instincts of the manager, Irene (Lynette Curran), who agrees to let her stay in an adjacent apartment until she can sort things out. She gets a job as a clerk at a service station and befriends her co-worker, Bianca (Hollie Andrew), who brings her home on their day off to ride horses.
Although Joe, Irene and Bianca invite Heidi into their lives (Heidi is more than willing to depend upon the kindness of strangers), these relationships fail, in part because Heidi sabotages them, in part because the world sabotages her. Joe, who is undergoing an identity crisis of his own, can't reconcile his attraction with her background-she's not the kind of girl he can bring home to his family. And it's not just the gentry who distrust her. Bianca's father frightens Heidi away because he suspects her, accurately, of being too fast, an inappropriate confidante for the daughter of an aspiring shop owner. Only Irene, whose son we learn has been sent to prison, retains compassion for Heidi, who will need it when these other rejections take their toll on her sense of self.
Shortland chronicles Heidi's opportunistic and self-destructive choices without sentimentality. Viewers may be predisposed to excuse Heidi's behavior or condemn it, but in truth she's neither an angel with broken wings nor a bad girl with a halo above her horns. She's just a kid trying to grow up too soon with no guidance. Like Bianca's disabled brother, who suffers from lack of affect, Heidi doesn't know how to act in the world. She rehearses romantic scenarios in the mirror when she should be nurturing basic survival skills, like patience. By the movie's end, however, we are hopeful she can replace her scrapbook stuffed with unicorns with real memories of her own.
The genuine irony of Somersault (as opposed to the smug variety too often offered up at the cinema) is that Heidi, for all of her youthful indiscretion, craves intimacy, an admirable desire. How paradoxical that experience tends to prepare us for cruder appetites.