Whether it’s the hostile bushland of Picnic at Hanging Rock, or the dry outback of Wake in Fright, the scorching Australian landscape is rarely kind to the cinematic characters that dare to roam it. Perhaps that’s why Cate Shortland chose to set her 2004 film Somersault — a story of a runaway teen seeking a sense of belonging — within a small snow town in New South Wales.
Sixteen year-old Heidi (Abbie Cornish) is caught kissing her mum’s boyfriend and decides to flee to the town of Jindabyne. First impressions suggest this might be a tale not so far from Agnes Varda’s Vagabond. Like Varda’s protagonist, Heidi appears hardened with a casual attitude towards trading sex for shelter and company. It soon becomes clear, however, that she equates sex to love. Heidi proves to be much less cynical and much more naive than Varda’s French female drifter. She feels her way through Jindabyne like a stray puppy, touching every object she sees, and searching for connection with everyone she meets.
Heidi’s gentleness and upfront nature rubs off on the other inhabitants of the town, particularly a farmer’s young son, Joe (played brilliantly by Sam Worthington). Worthington lets Joe’s temperamental side creep up on the audience, making his relationship with the wispy Heidi all the more intriguing. Worthington and Cornish have great chemistry on screen, but sadly the brief scenes that attempt to show Joe grappling with his own identity fall short of their potential. As writer and director, Shortland appears hesitant to go deeper in exploring the emotions of a character that is further removed from what she knows.
Exploring the emotions of young female characters is Shortland’s speciality, seen in her early short Joy (2000) to her more recent feature Berlin Syndrome (2017). But Somersault’s strength in this regard could be likened to more recent films such as Fish Tank or Diary of a Teenage Girl. Similar to these films, however, it is the lead actor’s convincing portrayal of the young protagonist that elevates Somersault to such a powerful film. Whether she’s pasting pictures inside her notebook, or staring into a glass of beer, Cornish fills the role of Heidi with a wide-eyed vulnerability that captures her childish upfront nature. Yet the actor’s holding stare also reflects a distantness that hints at a complicated inner world.
With her green eyes and bleach blonde hair, Cornish’s ethereal appearance blends perfectly into the frosty landscape in which Shortland directs. The cinematography — a cool palette of wide, naturally-lit shots of Heidi as she explores the snow-covered town — invites you into her dreamy view of the world. As Joe says, ‘when you leave you still feel her on your skin’. And it is true as the film moves from scene to scene. Shortland encourages the viewer to become lost in Heidi’s slow, sensory experience of her environment, to the point where the town feels like a figment of her imagination.
There is a slow feel to Somersault, characterized by the lingering beauty of the cinematography, to the long silences between a lullaby-like soundtrack. Entrapping the viewer in a sense of calm, Shortland makes the jolt back to the harsh realities of her character’s lives that much more severe. In her recent thriller, Berlin Syndrome, Shortland uses this technique play upon the audience’s psyche. She draws out Clare’s time in the apartment, begging her audience to wonder if she has given up on escaping her captor and accepted her Stockholm syndrome state. Although Somersault is definitely not a thriller, the film shows signs of Shortland’s talent for preying cleverly on her viewer’s mind. She allows them to become acclimatised to Heidi’s life in the eerily quiet town. And then in one, goose bump inducing scene, Shortland makes her protagonist crack. She reminds the audience that they’ve been swimming inside Heidi’s scrapbook daydreams. However, like with Berlin Syndrome, despite how far Shortland lets her characters sink into despair, she always yanks them out just before they hit the bottom.
by Tess Macallan
Categories: Anything and Everything