Somersault

on April 21, 2006 by Mary Colbert
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Executive producer Jan Chapman has an extraordinary eye for Aussie and Kiwi talent. Her first Riviera outing was as producer of Jane Campion's Palme d'Or winner "The Piano." Next, she arrived with Shirley Barrett's offbeat comedy "Love Serenade," awarded the Camera d'Or. So when her name was attached to "Somseraults," the debut feature of Cate Shortland, already acclaimed for her track record of award-winning short films, the movie's pedigree was anticipated. For Shortland, delivering story to script to screen involved a seven-year journey. And to the movie's credit, it shows. Every frame is loaded with artistic subtext.

This visually haunting coming-of-age tale marks the individual stamp of yet another original Australian female director to watch. The story of a sexually precocious, Lolitaesque 16-year-old named Heidi (Abbie Cornish) is set in Jindabyne, an Australian ski town in the Alps, where she heads after being thrown out of her home by her mother for playing around with her lover.

The 21-year-old Cornish, in her first lead role, is sensational as the fragile yet resilient protagonist, exuding an intriguing, natural sensual screen presence--caught sensitively in that intriguing limbo between girlhood and womanhood, manipulative with her sexuality yet unaware of its full impact. Bereft of love and real affection, she seeks the tenderness missing in her life through a series of brief erotic encounters. When she meets Joe (played with a gritty truthfulness by Sam Worthington, the latest local in-demand Australian male actor), the son of a local landowner, sparks fly. Momentarily, Heidi appears to have found salvation. But he, too, flounders when poised to make a deeper emotional commitment. The rejection propels the troubled adolescent to revert to her promiscuous ways. Yet amidst the ice and snow, she finds a supportive anchor in local hotelier Irene (Lynette Curran), whose staunch love and loyalty to her imprisoned son points the troubled adolescent ever so slightly (moral and emotional ambiguities work potently here) in the direction of redemption.

Unlike many Australian scripts, Shortland's verbal minimalism establishes her as an engaging visual and aural artist. She collaborates to strong effect with her director of photography Robert Humphreys, using a haunting color palette as an emotional barometer and a sparsely poignant soundtrack by Sydney cult band Decoder Ring to subliminally enhance the film's potent poetic narrative.

As for Cornish, in Shortland's hands, her enigmatic sensuality onscreen works a more mysterious chemistry than that of her more famous countrywomen, Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts. And judging by male press reaction, she's heading their way. Starring Abbie Cornish, Sam Worthington and Lynette Curran. Directed and written by Cate Shortland. Produced by Anthony Anderson. A Magnolia release. Drama. Unrated. Running time: 106 min

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