Watching the Australian coming-of-age film Somersault is a little like watching a fluffy white bunny hop through a minefield, one tiny spring away from becoming tonight's rabbit stew. The bunny in question is Abbie Cornish, a wounded, sexually promiscuous 16-year-old who runs away from home without money or a place to stay; for now, that means prowling bars for men willing to let her spend the night with them. It doesn't take great foresight to predict that a pretty, self-destructive underage girl in a roomful of drunk men might attract the wrong partner, which leads to some excruciating moments, in every sense of the word. Though she possesses a more even temperament, Cornish resembles Emily Watson's Breaking The Waves character, a naïf whose essential innocence and decency also open her up to sexual exploitation. Much of Somersault is spent waiting for that lead shoe to finally drop.
Like so many mediocre coming-of-age dramas about adolescent girls, the film occasionally succumbs to preciousness, but Cornish makes for an unusually complicated Lolita, as if her hormones were waging war with her heart. When she sidles up to her mother's live-in boyfriend in bed one morning, Cornish isn't acting out so much as discovering her newfound sexual powers; unfortunately, her mom doesn't see it that way. Ashamed and brokenhearted over what she's done, Cornish stuffs her backpack and takes off for a mountain town without much of a plan beyond glomming onto the first available man. She lucks out when she meets Sam Worthington, a serious-minded local who recognizes her flaws, but admits that she clings to him like his mother's perfume. Things seem to settle a bit after she gets a job behind the counter at a gas station and moves into a flat offered by a sympathetic landlord (Lynette Curran), but Cornish's reckless behavior threatens to undo the tenuous stability.
At times, Cornish seems like the heroine in a horror movie, moving inexorably toward doors that viewers are pleading for her not to open. Yet the reasons she dives head-on into trouble are gratifyingly thorny, tied both to a need to punish herself for betraying her mother and a genuine longing for intimacy. Though Worthington can never quite bring himself to respect her enough to return her affections, he also seems unworthy of a girl who offers her heart so readily and courageously. In a powerful turn, Cornish creates a character who's seductive yet brittle, with a knack for luring young men into situations where they almost have to hurt her. Somersault seems mechanized to come down on her like a hammer on porcelain, but that doesn't make it any less painful or true.