Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Somersault
Australia 2004 : Cate SHORTLAND : 106 mins
If there’s one thing current cinema doesn’t need, it’s yet another sensitive coming-of-age tale tracing a painful first love. Which is why Australian entry Somersault comes as such a terrific surprise. Even the setting is unexpected – rather than the well-traversed outback or sprawling suburbs seen in so many Aussie movies, Shortland’s debut unfolds in the wintry surroundings of Jindabyne, a New South Wales lakeside ski-resort which could easily pass for New Zealand or the damper sections of North America’s west coast.
This is where 16-year-old runaway Heidi (Abbie Cornish) ends up after fleeing her home in the far-off city – she’d been caught by her mother in a compromising clinch with the mother’s adult boyfriend. Attractive but penniless, naive but seldom afraid of using her sexual allure to get what she wants, it’s clear that Heidi could end up in serious trouble. She soon finds accommodation and maternal care, however, from motel-owner Irene (Lynnette Curran), while drifting towards a tentative romance with farm-boy Joe (Sam Worthington). Despite being in his mid-twenties, and a reputation as the local lothario, Joe turns out to be no more mature than Heidi herself…
From the very first scenes, it’s clear that debutant writer-director Shortland knows exactly what she’s doing – she has firm control over everything we see (evocatively rough-edged cinematography by Robert Humphreys) and hear (shimmeringly downbeat score by band Decoder Ring). Heidi is acutely attuned to the textures of her environment, and Shortland’s eye and ear for detail captures this inner-life with a winning combination of economy and intensity that recalls Christine Jeffs’ Rain and Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar.
But while those movies both lost focus in the latter stages, Shortland has the vision and skill to sustain her picture to feature length without stumbling into melodrama or losing her grasp of tone. Nor does she float off into a dreamy world of burgeoning teenage-girl sensuality and allow lyricism to overwhelm narrative concerns – as in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. In contrast, Shortland keeps her feet firmly on the ground – there’s a welcome strain of tough bleakness running through the story that may remind some audiences of Boys Don’t Cry, or The Boys by Rowan Woods, who’s thanked in the end-credit crawl.
Crucially, this isn’t just Heidi’s story: and it’s only when Worthington’s terse, ockerish Joe becomes a major figure in the drama – and is forced to grow up very fast – that Somersault really gets going. They make an attractive couple – he a charismatic cross between Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan; she an elfin beauty despite looking like Jack ‘White Stripes’ White from certain angles. And Shortland coaxes such moving, convincing characterisations out of them that, despite the age-gap that makes them an impractical long-term couple, we find ourselves firmly rooting for their hard-won happiness, either together or apart.
14th September, 2004
(seen 25th August : FilmHouse Edinburgh : public show – Edinburgh Film Festival)
click here for an interview with director Cate Shortland
click HERE for our full coverage of the 2004 Edinburgh Film Festival
by Neil Young