Heidi is a troubled teenage girl on the run from a bad situation at home. Joe is an emotionally stunted 20-something on the run from his feelings. When these two unbalanced individuals meet, the outcome doesn’t appear to be promising, but it does make for compelling viewing.
Heidi longs for love and acceptance, and she’s willing to look in all the wrong places to find it. As the movie opens, she makes a successful pass at her mother’s boyfriend, much to the dismay of mom when she walks in on them. Rather than try to work things out at home, she immediately runs away and ends up in a small, remote Australian ski resort called Jindabyne. She doesn’t really know anyone there, but in her immature mind she hopes to find immediate employment from a businessman who gave her his card once upon a time (most likely hoping to score).
Of course the businessman claims complete ignorance when she calls, especially when his wife answers the call at first, so she’s left in the middle of nowhere with no money or shelter. What’s a pretty and confused girl to do in such a situation? Hit the local bar and shack up with the first guy who notices her. He quickly ditches her the following morning, so she’s back on her own, but through a series of lucky breaks she eventually finds employment at the local mini-market, accommodation at a hotel with a very kindly proprietor, and companionship with local boy Joe.
The town of Jindabyne isn’t exactly the Outback, but it is practically the middle of nowhere with no discernible reason for existence other than its scenic lake and gateway location to the neighboring Thredbo ski resort and surrounding Kosciusko National Park. It’s a fairly insular community due to its small size, so when Heidi shows up looking to make a go of things there long term, she’s met with some amount of skepticism. While Heidi might have blended in seamlessly in a larger, more metropolitan area, she’s a definite novelty in Jindabyne, adding more of a sense of isolation to her already fragile emotional state.
When Joe enters her life, she opens up to him completely and hopes for the same intimacy in return. Unfortunately, Joe is not willing to appear vulnerable at all, so he keeps her at arm’s length and occasionally ignores her completely. He has feelings for her; he’s just not capable of letting down his defenses. This leads to more desperation from Heidi, more drama for both of them, and sets up the overly tidy resolution of the film.
It’s difficult to rave about Somersault since it doesn’t cover anything we haven’t already seen on screen many times before. While it is an intriguing character study of a life in crisis, there’s not much more to the paper-thin plot. The film swept Australia’s version of the Oscars during its release in 2004, but the field was admittedly weak due to a dearth of Australian film production in the past few years. The US distributor has wisely downplayed the film’s award pedigree, keeping the focus firmly on the characters and the small, independent nature of its production.
Heidi is played to perfection by Abbie Cornish, but it’s hard to care about what happens to the character since she’s not all that memorable to begin with, just confused and borderline self-destructive. This was a big career break for her though and we will see more of her in the years to come, so far most notably opposite Heath Ledger in the upcoming Candy. Sam Worthington plays Joe but doesn’t get much mileage out of his stoic and guarded character in spite of slight chinks in his façade enabled by constant alcohol consumption. The rest of the supporting cast is strictly peripheral scenery for the leads, with only a kind hotel owner offering anything memorable to the proceedings.
This is the debut feature from writer/director Cate Shortland, and it shows, with a propensity for out of focus, pseudo-artistic shots inserted between key scenes and needless subplots such as Abbie’s attempt at friendship with a co-worker and most of Joe’s life away from her. With that said, she does a fine job of eliciting and capturing a strong performance from Cornish and expertly conveys the isolation of the film’s surroundings, and it will be interesting to see how she develops in the future.
Written by Caballero Oscuro