A particular type of female coming-of-age story seems to flourish in Australia -- films set in remote areas that lurk on the dark edges of girls' adolescence. Cate Shortland's "Somersault," which won the Australian Film Institute Award for best picture and actress, eerily evokes the marooned feeling between childhood and adulthood. Dreamy and creepy, tender and terrifying, "Somersault" is a frank and visceral film that at the same time exudes an unexpected innocence. Shortland handles themes that are too often treated in a prurient, even exploitative way (the movie tells the story of its heroine's perilous sexual awakening) lightly and honestly, combining the beautiful but lonely landscape and her heroine's inchoate longing for love into something like pure emotion.
Heidi (Abbie Cornish) is an uncommonly pretty 16-year-old who lives with her working-class mother in a small town. One morning, she makes a pass at her mother's boyfriend, and he doesn't reject it. When her mother discovers them, Heidi leaves home, convinced that she will never be forgiven. She takes a bus to the ski resort of Lake Jindabyne, where a man who once gave her a parka vaguely promised her a job. The man, who is married, claims not to remember her, so Heidi wanders into town and into a bar. She meets a boy and goes back to his trailer with him, and in the morning, asks to come along to Sydney.
Even more troubling than Heidi's openness to sex with strangers is her gaping need for affection. The boy's instant and perfectly natural reaction is a sharp slap back to reality, yet Heidi bounces back to her place of blind trust and dreamy disconnect almost immediately. It's apparent from the start that she's a troubled child, though Shortland spares us the back story. To watch Heidi interact with the world is to know that she has understood for some time that she can trade sex for something resembling intimacy, and the fleeting sense of closeness it provides is enough to justify it.
Her second day in town, she meets another boy: Joe (Sam Worthington), the handsome son of wealthy local farmers, and quickly attaches herself to him. Soon, she has found a job at the local gas station; a flat attached to a motel rented by the sympathetic, oddly distant Irene (Lynette Curran); and has begun a tentative friendship with her fellow cashier, Bianca (Hollie Andrew), who remains wary.
The popular and privileged Joe, however, is sensitive enough to see her as she is, and they form an unlikely connection. The tentative tenderness of their relationship is in sharp contrast to real world cruelties; Lake Jindabyne is a sophisticated resort town, and his friends are merciless .
Cornish gives a spectacular performance as a child whose very existence seems to make adults uncomfortable and boys cruel. The sense that there is nothing Heidi can do to escape her looks, class and circumstances makes "Somersault" brutal to watch, but Cornish's amazing ability to elevate the character makes watching worthwhile.
MPAA rating: Not rated. Nudity and explicit sex scenes.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Writer-director Cate Shortland. Produced by Anthony Anderson. Director of photography Robert Humphreys. Editor Scott Gray. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.
At Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (323) 848-3500 and AMC Loews Broadway, 1441 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, (310) 458-1506, Ext. 706.