What kind of film can win every award that it is eligible for? In 2004, Somersault won thirteen Australian Film Institute awards, sweeping every category for a non-documentary feature film. Even considering that the competition included only Australian films, that is a pretty impressive record. Now it is coming to the
Somersault is the story of Heidi, a sixteen year old woman/girl who runs away from home after her mother catches Heidi and her mother’s boyfriend beginning to kiss in bed. She runs to the ski area in the
Eventually, she connects with Joe, who may be a better person than she has known before. He is hesitant to sleep with her, but she’s hard to resist. In time their relationship grows more and more complicated. Neither has really loved before, but they are trying to figure out how to love, rather than just have sex.
When they meet, Heidi wants them to compare terrible things they’ve done. She seems to need to know how good or bad Joe might be. She obviously has a fair amount of guilt and self hatred growing from her betrayal of her mother – something Heidi considers unforgivable.
Heidi is at a strange point in life – somewhere between childhood and adulthood. We see her looking through her scrapbook filled with cards of unicorns and other mementos of her past; then we see her trying to be a woman – not only through her sexuality, but trying to live on her own in an apartment that Irene, a motel owner (and Heidi’s surrogate mother in the story,) is letting her use. The apartment was Irene’s son’s, but he is away in jail (someone else who must have done something terrible.) Abbie Cornish does a wonderful job in her role as Heidi to highlight that transition between childhood and womanhood she is in. At times she looks young and vulnerable; at other times she has a maturity about her that may be beyond her years.
Writer/director Cate Shortland tells the story relying a great deal on her visual sense. Water is ever present. The story takes place within a town built on a lake, and the lake is included in many shots. Water also is used to give us an idea of what is going on in Heidi’s world. Early on we see a beautifully filmed shot of Heidi drinking from a water fountain (as she begins to drink in life). A bit later we see Joe pouring hot water on his truck’s windshield to de-ice it (as he and Heidi may be de-icing one another’s sense of love.) Still later we see a shot of Heidi laying face down in the bathtub, covered with water (being buried by all the cares of her world?) and then turn over (starting a new life?) Later we see Heidi’s fury as she sprays water on the window of the service station she is working at, while the co-worker she is angry with is on the other side of the glass. In between these are still other images that focus on water.
An interesting part of the film is about the way the film makes use of sex. Whenever we see people having sex on screen, it is always in a using and abusive relationship. Although we know that Joe and Heidi have sex, we never see them as it happens. The result is that the non-discriminating sexual encounters that Heidi takes part is are seen as unhealthy and dangerous, but saves the possibility of a healthier sex life which is based in love.
There is a minor subplot that deals with a boy with Asperger Syndrome (somewhat similar to autism). He is unable to interpret non-verbal clues, and so is unable to understand what other people are feeling. This makes those with Asperger very socially awkward since they don’t know when they say or do something upsetting. One of the issues that Joe and Heidi have to deal with is their lack of understanding what the other is feeling. They have no understanding about how what they do affects the other.
Somersault touches on themes of forgiveness. Heidi doesn’t believe she can be forgiven her terrible wrong, because she doesn’t forgive herself. Yet she discovers that the Irene still loves her son deeply in spite of the ghastly crime he has committed. Will her mother welcome her back after this, as the father welcomed the prodigal in Jesus’ parable? Will Joe and Heidi be able to forgive each other for the things they have done?
Coming of age stories such as Somersault do more that just look at the transition between child and adulthood. They also reflect the issues that are always a part of our lives. Issues around sexuality, our effects on others, and forgiveness are not settled once we become adult. Perhaps we never really “come of age;” we are continually growing and changing.