Words by Lea Kavita Kutscher
A somersault, by definition, is a body doing a complete 360° roll, and in Cate Shortland’s coming of age film the young protagonist Heidi (Abbie Cornish) life experiences a similar spiral. Somersault deals with self-exploration, trauma, and sexuality while also touching upon a raw young love that neither lover is prepared for.
The overall atmosphere isn’t necessarily what you’d expect of a 2004 Australian drama; it’s not sun, beach, and fun. Instead, the director and writer Cate Shortland opts for the wintery and rough aesthetics of the mountainside tourist town Jindabyne, delivered in awe-inducing cinematography. Albeit, some Aussie indicators remain; authentic pubs, the accent, and the occasional overgrown mullet.
The wintery atmosphere is perfectly aligned with the bleak storyline. Heidi lives in a small family home with her mum and her mum’s boyfriend Adam. The family dynamic is ambiguous and tense, disrupted by a tumultuous incident. A sexual altercation between Heidi and her mum’s partner drives Heidi out of town.
Heidi’s journey takes her to the mountain town of Jindabyne. Although Heidi successfully makes her way to Jindabyne by herself, she’s ignorant of her capability. She imposes upon men along the way in hope of help, presumably a learned behaviour. Her rather sexual approach to men evokes some discomfort (at least in me); she is just young and confused. Her reliance upon men is prioritised before her own needs and wants.
After some setbacks on her journey, she finally makes it to Jindabyne where she meets Joe (Sam Worthington). The two have a special connection but it doesn’t come without complications. While navigating through the romantic whirlwind and her self-discovery, Heidi meets the motel owner Irene (Lynette Curran) who becomes a mother figure for Heidi and provides Heidi with a place to stay. Despite Irene’s help and Heid’s attempts to get her life into order, it gets messy and the pieces don’t fall into place. Heidi finds herself in a confusing space of exploration – resulting in a downward spiral.
Heidi is so young, maybe 16 years, experimentation isn't abnormal at this age, neither is the lack of comfort that comes with it. We all need to go through it, but it's Heidi’s intense past struggles at a young age that heightens this experience for her. You can’t fully relate to her, but you can empathise and root for her.
This is exactly what makes Somersault so special. It is a coming–of–age movie but the raw kind. It does not depict rosy proms or complicated High School romance where the female character sees the blue-collar family her romantic came from and her parents do not approve of their love. It focuses on one person's journey, and how they cannot escape it. Heidi doesn’t ‘finish’ her journey by the end of the movie but you can tell she’s trying. Yes, men play a central role, but it’s not about Heidi finding that provider. It’s about her fighting against that idea and unpacking what it is that she wants.
I will not spoil what happens to Heidi, especially her relationship with Joe – you should find out yourself. However, I’ll say this: the movie left me with some discomfort, but the good kind, that you want to go through at times and gets you thinking. It lets you reflect on the messy road to growth. The movie stuck with me. The day after I watched it, I was biking through the Dutch winter cold, finding myself in a similar (but flat) Somersault scenery, and contemplating how Heidi, Joe, and Irene’s life evolved after the film ended. The journey of self-exploration may never end, as the movie implies, but there are some milestones to reach that leave you with a sense of content, and I hope Heidi found that.