There are lots of ways to grow up. The method offered by Somersault is to do something awful and then flee from it. This dreamy, sexy, and rather chilly Australian coming-of-age story captures a teenager's attempt to escape her past, to build something new atop the rubble of what came before and ultimately to hide it. What the young woman learns is what everyone learns: It can't be done.
Writer-director Cate Shortland faces no small challenge. Her heroine, Heidi (gorgeous newcomer Abbie Cornish), is both passive and tough, blurry and angelic, confused and concealed. While Somersault will never lose your interest, it will occasionally test your patience as you wait for Heidi to snap out of her reverie and take a stand, especially after she's busted for seducing her mother's boyfriend. She flees the ensuing family chaos to the mountain ski town of Jindabyne, set on a shimmering lake. There, she sleeps with a few louts, finds a job at a gas station, and makes a couple of (female) friends.
It looks better than it sounds, thanks to the painterly cinematography of Robert Humphreys. Exterior scenes are almost always icy and interiors warm, bringing us into Jindabyne's—and Heidi's— bipolar climate. Heidi's defenses sheathe her in a layer of frost that hides the fire within: Beneath the sex is shame. There's a fuzzy daydream feeling to Somersault—an outward expression of what's happening internally for the characters.
Shortland never loses track of the fact that Heidi is still essentially a child, and her motives often defy grown-up explanation. As a result, Somersault does feel remote much of the time. It's hard to know whether Heidi's move to the mountains is truly warranted or merely an act of teenage opera. Somersault has other faults, particularly its overblown symbolism. But its sleepy sexuality and artful cinematography give it an appealingly moody grace. And the final emotional release, in which Heidi at last breaks through to the burning beneath, is nothing short of cleansing.