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Somersault

dir: Cate Shortland
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Somersault has garnered rave critical reviews, buzz at overseas film
festivals, and an unprecedented 15 nominations for the upcoming AFI
awards. A person could be forgiven for being under the impression that
this would clearly have to be one of the truly greatest Australian
films made of all time, yea verily. An audience member going in with
such expectations of excellence is surely going to start setting fires
or engaging in self-mutilation as a violent kind of protest when
they're inevitably let down.

Is it one of the best Australian films of this year, let alone Of All
Time? Well, frankly, it's not like that is saying much. When it's
competing against the likes of Paul Hogan's ill-considered foray into
'hetero guys masquerading as gay guys' territory in Strange Bedfellows
(I'm shuddering even as I type about it), or the truly staggeringly
idiotic Danny Deckchair starring Welsh 'superstar' Rhys Ifans, you
can't judge its quality by its peers. Let's face it, no one hates
Aussie films as much as Australians do. We hate Aussie films when
they're too dinky-di and true-blue cheesy treacle and tripe. We hate
them when they're pretentious and artistic. We hate them when they
fail and especially when they succeed. Perhaps we have good reason to.
Whether it's a self-fulfilling prophecy, or an inability to make films
that engage with homegrown or any other audiences, I'm not the first
to assert that most Aussie films stink like week-old vomit behind a
couch.

But see, that's part of the problem. We just assume that they're going
to stink before they're even made. That pre-emptive condemnation is
the problem, which is funny, because usually the doctrine of
pre-emption is being shown to be such a resounding success around the
world. It's just such a great policy to have on anything you can think
of. Saves time and stuff.

All the same, I don't think the problems with the Australian film
industry are that fatal. So what if most Australian films suck. The
vast majority of films from whichever country you choose to name over
the course of any given year suck just as much if not more. Tell me
that a greater proportion of French films or Iranian films or
Hollywood movies are 'better' and I'll call you a liar to your face.
Because they're not. Anyone old enough to know better knows that the
putative creator of Sturgeon's Law was an optimist.

So saying that Somersault is a decent enough film doesn't have to mean
that it's good only in comparison to other Australian movies this
year, just that it's a decent enough attempt in and of itself. It
isn't overwritten, the acting is generally decent, and it's not as
turgid a melodrama as say, Lantana from a few years ago, another big
winner at the AFIs. Coincidentally, Lantana has achieved a new lease
of life by recently having been reclassified as a drug and put on the
Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme where it is routinely prescribed for
the chronically ill and aged. Repeated viewings are encouraged in
order to really sap the patient's will to live, and thus speeding the
Grim Reaper to their door. It is envisaged that this will save
millions in costly hospital care, thus leaving more money to be spent
on ice cream and puppies.

Somersault is nowhere near as boring as most Australian films are.
From this point on in this review at least, I'm not going to keep
using the word 'Australian' or 'Aussie' in every sentence, because
it's taking up too much valuable real estate where I could otherwise
be filling the gaps with words like 'finagle', 'roistering' or
'contumelious'. Those are real words, I swear.

This is Cate Shortland's first full length film, and she deserves to
be proud of it, regardless of the critical fawning. In it she has
thrown everything including the kitchen sink, yet still allowed it to
retain a certain kind of spareness which improves the narrative. It's
not an overly talkie film, it evinces certain aspects of the laconic
Australian character, in that most everything any character says is
delivered in realistically believable dialogue. These people aren't
poets or intellectuals. They speak simply and gruffly in most cases,
as I guess do most people who don't know each other that well.

Our main character is Heidi (Abbie Cornish), and the film is about
little else apart from her. She is 22 playing 16 very convincingly.
Heidi is very young for her age, which means that she is ill-suited to
making wise decisions at the moments when life starts putting
teenagers in the kinds of difficult situations where they inevitably
mess things up.

Needless to say, since many of us made decisions just as stupid if
not more so at that age, there is much to relate to. What she doesn't
yet understand whilst exploring her burgeoning sexuality is that sex
itself can be simultaneously banal and earth-shattering, and its
expression to other people can mean nothing or it can cause some truly
fucked up situations. Thus when she 'innocently' comes on to her
mother's boyfriend, she is unprepared for the repercussions, to put it
mildly.

She flees the boring confines of our nation's capital for the sunny,
heart-warming climes of the Snowy Mountains during snow season. Having
remembered someone who once gave her a business card, thinking that
the (apparently married) guy solely wanted to help her out if she was
ever in town, she calls him only to be brushed off. With no money or
acquaintances in the area, she does what any girl does in that
situation: she allows a guy to pick her up so she can get a place to
sleep.

Her situation gradually improves as she tries to figure things out,
get money and shelter, and also try to nut out how human relationships
work, especially the messy stuff of having sex with people. This isn't
an entirely original kind of storyline, obviously. A young girl's
passage from innocence to womanhood is the stuff of fantasy,
literature and many a dodgy movie. Even the sitcom Seinfeld had a
recurring gag about a made-up arthouse movie called Rochelle Rochelle,
which detailed a young girl's erotic journey from Milan to Minsk.

This is not Somersault's intention. It doesn't refer to any of that
crap, and clearly focuses on her as 'subject' rather than 'object'.
Though she does spend time naked in the film, the true nakedness is
the vulnerability that she expresses in her performance. There is a
rawness and discomfort to her performance that casts out any sleazy
underpinnings, though the film retains a curious sensuality. This
sensuality arises more from Heidi's response and relationship with the
snowy environment around her and her child-like rapture at the
colours, textures and images that overflow in specific scenes.

These 'kinds' of stories generally have the female character being
circled by wolf-like men, who lead them inevitably to ruin and death.
When they're done in a moralising, hysterical way, the point used to
be trying to scare girls into staying pure and virginal, because to
stray means their 'virtue' will be compromised, their reputation will
suffer and they'll end up as crack whores giving $5 blowjobs at a bus
station somewhere. Here the men aren't predatory, or vicious, they're
just opportunistic in most cases, except that of Joe.

Joe (played well by Sam Worthington, who usually gives boring
performances but is great here) is attracted to Heidi, but barely
knows what he wants from life, let alone what to give or take from a
confused girl. He works on his dad's farm, hoons around with equally
moronic bumpkin mates, but seems to aspire to something else. He
doesn't know what he wants, as becomes painfully clear as the film
progresses, and thus isn't really in a position to be a mentor or even
a sugardaddy to Heidi. When his friends ridicule his relationship with
Heidi, he responds to this by thrashing around in a pretty desperate
manner. Oh, and he drinks like a fish, which is the staple diet of all
troubled characters.

He finds a curious comfort in Heidi, but is repulsed by her devotion.
Which I find unbelievable. Surely men never get frightened by
commitment and relish the opportunity to enter into long-term
monogamous relationships with needy, emotionally immature women?
They'd be CRAZY not to.

Their relationship is believable because they are very messy
characters who don't ever know the right thing to say or do in any
given situation. That seems pretty realistic to me, regardless of what
their ages are supposed to be. Heidi's primary problems all arise from
sexuality. She confuses attention with affection, thinks that allowing
someone to have sex with her will somehow bind them to her, that sex
means love and that loneliness can be assuaged with booze and random
partners who don't even know her name. Since I know people twenty
years her senior who still believe the same delusions, I can't really
blame her for believing these fallacies.

It is confronting, at least for me, to watch a young female character
wrestle with these dilemmas, combining a child-like simplicity with
nascent fumbling attempts at overt adult sexuality. Sure, in
contemporary society the girls with navel piercings and wearing
hipsters cut so low you can see whether they're the Girls from Brazil
or not get younger with each passing year. It doesn't make it any less
discomforting for me to know that people are making the same mistakes
I did, only they're making them at a much younger age. The film
doesn't provoke in me a parental desire to tut tut at the kiddies
getting it on and indulging in countless shenanigans; it breaks my
heart by making me feel how big Heidi's heart is and seeing how far
away from happiness she gets because her intentions are perpetually
misunderstood, or even worse, understood perfectly.

Abbie Cornish is superb in the role, in what is a very delicate, very
fragile performance. It's very easy to make a character like that
thoroughly annoying, and she successfully dodges several bullets. She
deserves her best actress nomination at the AFIs and will easily get
it. I expect great things from her. She's the best element of this
film (apart from the cinematography, which is low-budget, hand-held
but often stunning), and was the best part of another recent Strayan
movie, One Perfect Day, which tried hard but failed. I consider it a
valiant effort all the same, for trying something different in a film
making environment that is generally even more risk-averse than
Hollywood's. Everyone else puts in decent work, though it's not overly
showy. Sam Worthington plays a complex character quite simply, and
pulls it off. The camerawork by Robert Humphreys is restless,
deliberately I guess, combining an adolescent energy with a nervous
feel. It's good stuff, and it reminds me of fellow Australian
cinematographer Dion Beebe's recent work (Praise, Collateral and more
so In the Cut).

This is all well and good; I'm making myself sound like quiet the
little film nerd. But still I haven't answered the question that the
five or so of you who actually read this far want to know: is this
film worth watching? Am I going to be entertained and amused,
forgetting at least for a while about the emptiness inside whilst I
watch this flick? Well, probably not, gentle reader. You're probably
going to be bored out of your tiny fucking minds. For most people,
you're going to wonder why this didn't go straight to television,
completely side-stepping the whole cinema and video thing. The
production values aren't that dazzling, and the scale of the story is
so modest you'd be forgiven for thinking it should have turned up on
the ABC or maybe SBS on a Saturday night after short movie program
Eat Carpet.

That's my honest opinion. I liked it (moderately), but I can't really
understand why the Australian Circlejerk of Critics have anointed this
film the latest in that long line of poorly-attended but
overwhelmingly praised films that garners so much press and awards
around AFI time. Maybe they're desperate to say something nice about
an Aussie film for once since they spend so much time shitting on
other flicks deriving from this hallowed cabbage patch. Maybe they're
turned on by a sassy piece of jailbait playing a role where she's not
even Barely Legal. Who knows. Whatever the reasons, this is where we
are. Let the nation decide whether it's worth it or not. Clearly, as
we saw from last weekend's election, Australians are more than capable
of making intelligent and rational decisions about what matters most
in this country.

7 times I wanted to lay down and die last Saturday out of 10

--
'It's good that we met' – Heidi, Somersault

Rating: