Sex and the indie girl 

Somersault fails to break classic teen drama formula

In the sexual etiquette of chick flicks, bad behavior is kissing your best friend's boyfriend. But in the creepier terrain of indie-girl cinema, transgressions tend to be bigger, like kissing your mom's boyfriend.

Such inappropriate lovers and self-destructive behaviors are par for the course in the subgenre of creepy, sexy indie-girl films. It must be something in the Vegemite. Centered on difficult sexual journeys, such dark tales seem to be a specialty of formerly British-ruled island nations from New Zealand's Christine Jeffs (Rain) to virtually everything made in the sexual gothic canon of Aussie Jane Champion.

In Australian director Cate Shortland's Somersault, 16-year-old Heidi (Abbie Cornish) -- whose name and cool Nordic looks recall that storybook heroine -- begins her odyssey by fleeing the suddenly volatile home front where the 21st-century version of the big bad wolf is your mother's tattooed boyfriend lolling in bed watching television.

Heidi's bildungsroman brings her to the Australian mountain resort of Jindabyne in New South Wales, the kind of place where townies are tolerated because they change the sheets and scramble the eggs, though the real lords of the manor are the snowboarders and skiers who vacation there and transform the place into a hedonistic playpen of clubs, drinking games and casual sex. In keeping with a classic teen drama formula, the division between the teenage haves and have-nots is instantly familiar, though here it takes on an uglier cast with Somersault's unrelenting air of sexual menace.

The hierarchy doesn't just feel class-based, but also serves to illuminate a kind of woman-on-bottom character to Heidi's experience.

The menfolk in Somersault are a fairly sorry lot, sleeping with Heidi and then informing her the morning after about that girlfriend back home. And those are the diplomats. The real creeps slap each other high-fives when they think they've scored a girl drunk enough to let them have their way with her. In an especially skin-crawling scene where the power dynamic between Heidi and the town's men and boys is asserted yet again, a married man with children drives Heidi to an out-of-the-way location and lets her know in so many words that "her kind" is not welcome in his world.

It is initially difficult to decide where Joe (Sam Worthington) lies on the creep-cad spectrum. A local aristocratic rancher's son, Joe's cockiness and casual snobbery with the town's working class give his and Heidi's sexual relationship an unequal, even sadistic dimension.

Shortland's film has its share of vivid characters and a beguiling lead actress, though it shares certain wispy, romanticized tendencies with other art films centered on alternative girl stories. A mixed-up, waifish indie temptress, Heidi hails from a cinematic sorority of screwed up and sexy vixens played by Samantha Morton in Morvern Callar and Jesus' Son, and the damaged doll baby heroine of Breaking the Waves. Like some of those films, Somersault tends to romanticize erotic masochism and dreamy, mental instability. Heidi was, in fact, inspired by an emotionally disturbed girl of the director's acquaintance.

Where Shortland runs into trouble is in her over-reliance on indie-film conventions, and the kind of pretty, precious, girly-fied touches -- unicorns and snowflakes and paddy cake, oh my -- that lend an annoying affectation to Heidi's story and emphasize in a gazillion contrived ways Heidi's little girl vulnerability.

As Somersault's plot thickens, Heidi shows a growing willingness to barter her sexuality for services, whether a warm bed or a job. But Heidi's masochism is almost lyrical and poetic in Shortland's pretty cinematography and hip alterna score. Even suffering looks overly decorative and artful, as vulnerability, sexuality and self-destruction are packaged into a kind of angsty girl kitsch.



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