I really don’t know that I ever got a good grasp of the Australian film Somersault.
As is not unusual for an independent film, it doesn’t make everything obvious. There’s somewhat less dialogue than in a mainstream movie, and what there is is incomplete and in need of interpretation. So you end up having to read between the lines a lot, and pay attention to body language, and the looks people give each other, and all that. I think I missed quite a bit that someone more in tune with this stuff could have picked up.
The movie is the story of a teenage (I think) Australian girl who runs away after clashing with her mother, and takes up temporary residence in some sort of touristy resort town. Really it’s as much as anything about her discovering her sexuality.
But like I say, I’m convinced I missed a lot, probably for a variety of reasons.
One is I wasn’t all that drawn in early, and for the first maybe half of the movie, I was kind of bored and my concentration came and went. I focused better in the second half. I don’t know that the movie became all that much more interesting; I think I became aware it was slipping away from me, and I somehow switched into an almost mystery-solving mode, where I was determined to make sense of this movie.
I lost a little bit of content due to the Australian accent factor, but really I wouldn’t give this one much weight. In contrast to a couple of movies I’ve written about already, I probably understood as much as 90% of what was said.
I think the problem was a little more subtle than that. It wasn’t so much a language problem as a problem of insufficient knowledge of the socio-cultural context of these events. I think there were certain dynamics at work that probably would have been a lot more obvious to an Australian.
For example, I was confused why in one instance her co-worker’s mother’s boyfriend (or her co-worker’s father or big brother or something–I’m not a hundred percent sure) tells her to stay away from her because “You’re different kinds of girls” and “She has her whole future ahead of her” or something like that.
So maybe the idea was that she was the equivalent of “white trash,” that the people in this town reacted to her as someone to look down on, someone from “the wrong crowd” who could corrupt anyone who gets too close to her, maybe someone it can be fun to screw as long as you realize that’s all she’s good for. But the problem is I’m just inferring that as a guess. I don’t know.
Some of what I feel like I missed was like that. At times, characters were saying and doing things that didn’t fit or make sense to me. But it may be that that’s because I wasn’t in possession of certain pieces of the puzzle that were more readily available to people with some background knowledge of the prevailing cultural attitudes.
And then some of the things that got past me were just basic narrative facts, along the lines of “But didn’t she just hit town and spend the night at that guy’s place? So how come in the next scene she’s at this motel asking if she can stay in her room another day?” Stuff that probably is unimportant, but it just frustrated me that I hadn’t been paying sufficient attention to know what the heck was going on.
In some respects, then, it was not unlike watching a foreign film where you can’t make out some of the subtitles. You just watch closely and try to fill in the gaps as best you can.
I also couldn’t decide how to feel about the main character herself. And this is what I was thinking about the most in the second half of the movie, and in the aftermath of the movie.
There was something about her and her sexuality that just wasn’t drawing me in. Now that means something’s gone seriously awry, because we’re talking about an at least fairly attractive slutty Australian teenage girl who even has some brief nude scenes. I’m supposed to be all over that kind of thing.
In reflecting on that, I’m wondering if she is a lot more the reality of a sexually active teenage girl than the fantasy you’d normally get in a movie, where that reality has certain elements of awkwardness and unpleasantness.
It is as if she hasn’t developed any kind of rhythm to her sexuality, like she is kind of feeling her way around with this newly discovered weapon she doesn’t really understand, just making it up as best she can.
I’m guessing she’s about sixteen, but I don’t think her age is ever given. There are circumstantial things that would make me guess older–she spends a lot of time drinking in bars and no one raises an eyebrow, none of the people she has sex with seems concerned about a statutory rape charge, she doesn’t have to lie or go through any sort of hassle to get a job, there’s no mention of her being in school, or having dropped out or being on a break from school, etc. (or maybe there is and I missed it).
But behaviorally, sexually, she does seem more fifteen or sixteen to me. And again, there’s not a spicy, intriguing, Lolita-type fantasy feel to it all; she’s more like a real teen who doesn’t really know what the heck’s going on with this sex stuff.
At times her attempts to flirt or seduce someone to get something she wants are peculiarly crude and obvious. She can have an almost tomboy body language to her, and coupled with other physical traits like fingernails and toenails cut down to the quick (as well as things like the way she feels the cutouts and glitter on the pages of the sort of child’s scrapbook she carries around with her), there’s something childlike about her, something that doesn’t convey femininity or sexuality.
When she does have sex, she sometimes seems pretty indifferent about it, like she has a vague feeling she’s supposed to let this happen, but she’s not real sure why and she’s not getting all that much out of it. Then when she does fall for a guy (a pretty bland character who seems to have plenty of issues of his own but just was kind of a zero to me), and she does open up and get more emotional about it, that seems a bit “off” to me too. It’s like she’s not really emotionally developed enough to feel what she purports to feel (she tells him she loves him comically early, she talks about what a close connection they have, she urges him to be willing to open up and be vulnerable and communicate with her, etc.), but is mimicking what she’s seen on TV and in movies, saying what she thinks people are supposed to say in this situation.
She just doesn’t know how to play the games, doesn’t know how to send and read signals, doesn’t know when to be aggressive and when to lie back, doesn’t know what the consequences will be of doing this or saying that, really doesn’t know what emotions to feel about all this. And for whatever reason, the way she was kind of feeling her way and fumbling around with her sexuality just wasn’t all that sexy to watch. (At least not consistently; I certainly won’t say I got nothing out of seeing her naked and such.) But like I say, what’s depicted here is probably a lot closer to the reality of what an inexperienced teenage girl is like when she first starts sleeping around.
The feeling I got at the very end as she’s heading back home was actually a mostly positive one. I think if it didn’t end with her going home, it might have had more the feeling that she could spiral downward from here, that she could quickly get in over her head before she’s figured out this sex stuff. Instead, because it’s a finite, self-contained, fairly brief interlude in her youth, I got more the sense that it could actually be something she looks back on as a very valuable, if at times painful, learning experience. I could imagine an older version of her chuckling in embarrassment at some of what had happened, getting a warm feeling thinking about the first guy she really fell for and maybe idealizing their little fling in her memory, and in general appreciating this period as an important stage in her growing up.
As opposed to them just being painful, traumatizing memories for her.
Ultimately, I would rank Somersault below the middle of films I’ve seen in terms of how much I enjoyed it or how well it held my interest. The main thing is there were too many times I just didn’t have a firm handle on what was going on. It did get me to think about certain things and was kind of interesting in that sense, but it’s possible I misinterpreted a lot of it and the speculations it set off in me really are quite irrelevant to the movie.