Saturday, September 18, 2004

“Somersault”: brilliant or banal?

I went to see “Somersault”, debut feature film of Australian Cate Shortland and an official selection at Cannes, with a group of friends.

Basically, it’s the story of sixteen-year old Heidi (Abbie Cornish) a curious girl, struggling to feel comfortable in a grown-up body and – disastrously wrong-headedly - trying to reach out to others for closeness principally through sex.

After being caught coming onto her mother’s boyfriend, mostly to see if she can, she flees Canberra to Jindabyne and begins a relationship with Joe (Sam Worthington), a local grazier’s son and tries to fit into the local community.

The reactions were mixed, especially among the women: a number found it “random”, or a coming of age story that simply lurched from sex-scene to sex-scene or loaded with banal, unbelievable dialogue. This seems to reflect some viewer reactions elsewhere.

I guess this highlighted for me two love it or hate it aspects of the film: the editing (does rapid cutting from close-up detail to hand held conventional shots evoke life’s everyday impressions or sensations, or is it just kinda irritating?) and the script (do characters struggling with their inarticulacy seem more innocent and vulnerable or just tedious?).

For me, it worked. “Coming of age drama” is a pernicious label, and “Somersault” is more than that. Cornish (a twenty-something actress) manages to evoke a compelling fragility in Heidi, an adolescent mixture of reticence and boldness that is not courage so much as curiosity and a complete lack of boundaries. This makes the sex in the film neither gritty nor titillating, so much as heart-wrenchingly flinch-worthy. It makes every rejection Heidi encounters, and every act of kindness she meets too, painfully immediate.

The cinematography is often eye-poppingly good, and the use of over-bleached colours and hand-held camera work is refreshingly understated and not deliberately arty. The film progresses in a series of crystalline images, haunting everyday impressions of Canberra and Jindabyne in a familiar, biting winter. The sound design is also remarkably understated.

The dialogue was forgiveable in its capturing the emotional naïveté of adolescents who think they understand sex, but have no experience of relationships.

Overall, though, it’s just so refreshing to see cinema about places you think of as home. And if it gets a UK release, I can drag friends to it and say, “See, Australia really does get cold!” (It was also kinda strange to see someone I went to school with in an excellent cameo as a stoner rich-kid from Sydney.)

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