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Australia provided a big chunk of viewing pleasure for many children, starting off with Neighbours and Home and Away and then giving us high-school life at Heartbreak High. There was plenty of cross-population between the three but only a few graduated to bigger things (Kylie Minogue must be the biggest star to come out of them). Recently some familiar faces could be seen in the twenty-somethings drama The Secret Life of Us, written by Cate Shortland. Now she gives us her debut cinematic feature, Somersault.

Heidi is a pretty sixteen-year-old girl whose blossoming sexuality propels her into the bed of her single mother’s boyfriend. Caught kissing she meets with the wrath of her mother and finds herself homeless, with very little money to her name. She makes the long journey to the Lake Jindabyne, a freezing cold ski resort with a small but bustling nightlife that immediately entrances her. After getting re-acquainted with an ex-boyfriend, she finds her hopes dashed because his heart is now elsewhere and eventually realises that she will just have to fend for herself. Teetering on the brink of using her body to put food in her mouth, she suddenly meets Joe, a similarly lonely but also shy soul who buys her a drink. And so their relationship slowly evolves into powerful, intense, sexually-charged but damaged fusion that changes both of their lives forever. But is it for the better?

Cate Shortland has done a great job making the transition to the big screen, and the result is clearly worthy of the Australian Awards that it has garnered, amongst them Best Film, Direction, Screenplay, Actress and Actor. The story is quietly brooding, slowly painting the picture of the lives of the two central leads and those around them in the small town they inhabit. Told primarily from the perspective of the wistful, capricious but largely innocent Heidi, Abbie Cornish’s powerful portrayal of her basically keeps the movie together. Although she does not always look as young as she is supposed to be, she capably manages to capture the spirit of this teen soul. Aside from her really being in her twenties, part of the age problem lies in the fact that the complex male character, played by Sam Worthington, must be much older and yet there does not always seem to be a significant difference in age between them. It largely works so well because of the excellent chemistry between them.

Somersault is a lovely little tale of surviving, finding love and losing love, living alone and living together, and it comes across as much more realistic than most average romantic dramas. The relationships are serious and mature, showcasing fear, disappointment, hope, intimacy, friendship, confusion, breaking up and forgiveness in equal measure, and clearly coming from the heart of a person closely acquainted with the subject matter. Hopefully both writer-director Cate Shortland and her warm, loveable, young star Abbie Cornish, find themselves moving on to much-deserved bigger and better things in the future.

Presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer, the video quality is not that much better than Shortland’s TV show The Secret Life of Us. The detail is quite good, but there is both noticeable softness in some scenes and a light layer of grain running throughout, both a shame to see in such a recent film. On the plus side there seems to be no signs of digital artefacting and the colour scheme is broad and luscious, despite the wintry setting, with Heidi herself glowing throughout. There is also significant use of tinted film and slo-mo, both to good effect. There is no sign of print damage.

The main track is a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 effort that presents the dialogue clearly throughout but unfortunately offers up most of the rest of the aural input through the fronts and centre speakers as well. The ambient, dreamy score by Decoder Ring is quite sweet, and perfectly suited to the movie, but it is very low-level and only just reaches the rears. There is some occasional bar music which also permeates through to the rears from time to time, but with few effects and nothing to provoke any bass, this is quite a quiet track really. The Dolby Digital 2.0 offering is obviously much more restricted but still basically gets the job done.

First up we get Flowergirl, a twenty-minute short film from the director, Cate Shortland, about a young Japanese man, Daisuke, who is living in Australia counting the days until he returns to Japan. We get a kind of video diary of his last few days where we come to realise that he is obsessed with his pretty flatmate Hana. The short is in Japanese with subtitles, filmed using an extreme form of the tinted lens and handheld technique you can see occasionally in Somersault and some very strange imagery from time to time. Although nowhere near as good or as polished as her other work, it is definitely worth a watch if you like Shortland’s art.

‘Into the Snow Dome’ is a twenty-five minute making-of that is largely shot on location. There are plenty of later interviews with the cast and crew, Shortland herself discussing her inspiration in the project and her faith in Abbie’s capabilities and both leads talking about their characters. We get plenty of behind the scenes footage, with the make-up being done and the sets being put together. There are lots of clips from the final film but they are all linked to what is being talked about, making them slightly more relevant and making the featurette much less fluffy. It is an interesting featurette and they even get into discussing the short film Flowergirl as many of them worked on that before.

There are eight deleted scenes including more of the prologue, extra time with Heidi in the caravan with her ex, her meeting Joe’s parents, her spending more time with Irene and so forth. Although I can understand why they were cut, extra footage of the lovely Abbie Cornish is always a welcome and there is one scene where she is messing around in her room in front of the mirror that might have been a welcome re-insertion. The optional director’s commentary explains why she felt they were mostly unnecessary and repetitious.

The ‘Shooting Somersault’ Interview with the cinematographer Robert Humphries runs for fifteen minutes and has him talking about his work on the previous films Flowergirl and Joy, which employed a similar style of filming. The best parts of the interview seem to have been duplicated in the main featurette (either that or he just likes to repeat himself). The interview is a little on the boring side and bordering on monotonous, but there are quite a few technical details about the cinematography if you’re interested.

Finally we get a trailer which does a perfectly reasonable job of giving you a taster of the main feature and there is a text ad for the soundtrack by Decoder Ring.

Somersault is both full of hope and dusted with bleakness, painting a very human story of young life and love in a quaint little town in Australia. Shortland has done a great job with her first foray for the Big Screen and the lovely lead, Abbie Cornish, shows that she has great things ahead of her. The video presentation is perfectly acceptable and the audio track is quiet but sweet. The extras easily make up for any shortfalls, not least because of the short film that is included. It is a beautiful little movie that is well worth your time, rent it or even buy it outright, you won’t be disappointed.