Magnolia Home Entertainment // 2004 // 102 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // August 28th, 2006
Love can turn you upside down.
This low-key independent movie was the first and only to sweep all 13 film categories at the Australian Film Institute awards in 2004, thereby ensuring its proper place in the Aussie cinematic pantheon with classics such as Crocodile Dundee and Young Einstein.
After 16-year-old Heidi (Abbie Cornish) is caught snuggling up to her mother's boyfriend, she stuffs some clothing in a backpack and hops on a bus headed to a small mountain town. Though she barely knows a soul in her new locale, she quickly gloms onto nearly any man that will have her. This misguided search for love and companionship with Australian meatheads predictably drives the delicate Heidi into emotional turmoil and physical danger. As her lifestyle turns increasingly desperate we are left to wonder: how low will she go?
Probably the worst way too approach Somersault is with high expectations. Certainly the record 13 AFI wins will do nothing to damper them, but this is a quiet and understated movie that does not award over-exuberance. The movie's writer-director Cate Shortland employs sparse, poetic dialogue and striking visuals (enhanced by the use of blue filters) to create a sort of dreamlike atmosphere. The film is basically the cinematic version of an Iron & Wine song. As such, the movie has the ability to either lull you into a passionate reverie or send you into a deep sleep (I don't advise starting this film after midnight).
The plot of the movie is rather nebulous. After leaving home, Heidi alternatively looks for work and boys and has middling success in each endeavor. For money, she takes a job working the counter in a convenience store. With her delicate good looks, male companionship is not hard to find, though Heidi quickly begins settling for any local club kid who show her attention. In a wrenching early scene, she brings home a young dope from a dive bar for quick, drunken shag. Afterwards, when she asks him to stay with her, he tells her he has a girlfriend and sheepishly rushes out the door. As the movie progresses, we realize Heidi's journey is just one long, uninterrupted series of humiliations that was set in motion the morning she decided to snog her mom's boyfriend.
Still, though much of her plight is her own doing, it is difficult not to feel sympathy for her. It doesn't hurt that the actress who plays her, Abbie Cornish, is a beautiful young woman (think Nicole Kidman without the plastic surgery) and she gives a tender, understated performance. It is a great testament to her talent that despite an overwhelming pulchritude, she can still successfully play a downtrodden tramp that works at a gas station and can't keep a man.
Cornish's fine performance is matched by nearly the entire cast (in addition to winning all four acting categories at the Australian Film Institute awards, Somersault scored two additional acting nominations). The hunky Sam Worthington, who resembles a more cerebral Billy Ray Cyrus, is particularly impressive as Joe, a casual lover of Heidi's. Like many men in the movie, Joe quickly beds Heidi, but he also feels a sympathy and need to protect her lacking in his acquaintances. While this is an often emotionally draining movie to watch, Joe provides most of the film's few uplifting moments.
Though there is much to admire in Somersault, the film ultimately emerges more as an engaging character study than a cinematic masterpiece. Director Shortland has created a stunningly delicate film, and crafted great characters to populate it, but the sexual awakenings of a promiscuous 16-year-old, though touching and occasionally tragic, do not alone provide enough grist for a great story. Still, the promise on display here portends a brilliant artistic future for Shortland and the Cornish.
Magnolia Home Entertainment has put together a tidy package for Somersault's DVD release. This scenic and lyrical film has been beautifully crafted and looks and sounds good enough to mesmerize in home theater surroundings. The extras are a little slight -- a commentary track from the director and her cast would have been great -- but still worthwhile for admirers of the film. "Inside the Snowdome" contains interviews with Shortland and Cornish, as well as much of the film's crew. There are a few interesting tidbits -- we learn that Heidi is based on a girl Shortland met at a school for troubled teens -- but the featurette largely contains superficial information. The interview with cinematographer Robert Humphreys should interest inspiring directors, as this film looks exquisite, but discussions of lighting technique rarely interest casual movie fans. Eight deleted scenes, with commentary from Shortland, are also included on the disc; the scenes add little to the film's storyline, but are mostly -- as Shortland herself put it -- brief snippets of Heidi "mucking about."
Somersault is so reminiscent in style and tone of a David Gordon Green (George Washington) film, that I was surprised he wasn't somehow involved in the film's production. Like Green's three full-length movies, Somersault falls just short of greatness but shows a deep emotional intelligence all too rare in contemporary film.
This is not most pleasant cinematic experience, but it is expert filmmaking. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "Inside the Snowdome: Making Somersault featurette
* Deleted scenes with commentary by director Cate Shortland
* "Shooting Somersault" interview with cinematographer Robert Humphreys