Terry Gilliam’s latest film was so poorly promoted and distributed that even my husband had never heard of it. And he’s a Terry Gilliam fan. A year after making a moderate splash at the Toronto Film Festival in 2005, Tideland was only ever shown on nine screens in the U.S. and soon died a quiet death.
Happily, it has now been resurrected on DVD.
Based on the novel by Mitch Cullin, Tideland is the story of Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland), the nine year old daughter of a pair of drug addicts. Jeliza-Rose seems to be a reasonably happy and well adjusted child, even as she cheerfully prepares heroin injections for her parents. When her mother overdoses and dies, her father (Jeff Bridges) takes her off to the old family farmhouse, long abandoned and rapidly crumbling. Jeliza-Rose accepts her new circumstances as an exciting adventure and occupies her time exploring the house, wandering the fields and playing with her friends: four plastic dolls heads with names and personalities all their own.
Then her father dies.
You can see why this movie might not have appealed to most people reading the synopsis.
What no plot summary or review can convey is the sense of wonder and innocent joy in this film. Events and circumstances that would be horrifying to any adult are somehow transformed when seen through the eyes of this child. Even her father’s dead body, slowly rotting in its chair, is accepted as a silent playmate just like one of Jeliza’s doll heads.
The only other adults in Jeliza’s world are a witch-like, somewhat demented woman named Dell (played by the formidable Janet McTeer) and her brain damaged brother Dickens (Brendan Fletcher) who live in a neighbouring farmhouse. Dickens is an adult only in a physical sense. In every other way he is a child, which makes him a natural playmate for Jeliza-Rose. This leads to some painfully uncomfortable moments as their play comes dangerously close to becoming sexual. But again, the discomfort is only from our perspective as adults. The line is never crossed, and as far as Jeliza-Rose is concerned it’s all just part of the game.
I don’t think I have ever seen a film that so accurately portrays the world inside a child’s mind, and as long as you stay in that world it’s a wonderful, hope filled experience. It’s only when you step out of that perspective and see it as an adult that it becomes dark and disturbing.
It’s not hard to see which world Terry Gilliam prefers.