Tideland is Terry Gilliam's adaptation of Mitch Cullin's novel of the same title. The film follows a short period in the life of a young pre-pubescent girl, Jeliza-Rose. At the outset of the film, Jeliza-Rose is living with her hipster parents. Middle age hippy rockers for whom the party never stopped, and consequently both are now badly strung-out on heroine. We only get to know her mother, played by the "milfalicous" Jennifer Tilly briefly, as she is pretty quickly the victim of an overdose. Rather than face up to what has happened, Jeliza-Rose's father Noah, played by Jeff Bridges, decides to flee to the prairies where he was raised with his young daughter in tow. Once they arrive at the home of Noah’s now deceased mother. Noah decides it's time for a little chemical vacation of his own, but sadly he, too, is never to wake.
Tideland is in some ways a dark fairytale, but essentially it’s a look at the resilience of a child's mind. With her father dead in the chair where he overdosed, Jeliza-Rose is left to fend for herself. There’s no food in the long-abandoned house and untended grain fields stretch for miles in every direction. For sustenance she has only a jar of ageing peanut butter and for company, 4 dolls heads. Thus with her little body starved of physical sustenance and human company, Jeliza-Rose retreats into her own mind, using the everyday items around her to weave fantasies and adventures, in a way that only a child can.
Canadian child star Jodelle Micah Ferland, who you may recognise from Silent Hill and The Messengers, takes the lead as Jeliza-Rose. The then-10 year old actress carries most of the film on her own, which is a seriously impressive feat. Considering the fairly adult themes and the fact she also gives each dolls head its own voice and personality (though thinking about it, it is pretty natural for kids to create personalities for their various toys). The Dolls heads form her main co-stars with the blonde headed "Mystique" being her main companion. However, the prairies are not totally empty; Jeliza-Rose meets an almost feral brother and sister. Dell, played by Janet McTee, is a wild-looking woman dressed in black who believes The Bees are out to murder her and has an obsession with taxidermy. Dell's younger brother, Dickens, played by Brendan Fletcher, is a young man suffering with heavy educational retardation, which appears to be the result of a lobotomy, but could be the results of an incident involving a school bus and a train. Dickens strongly believes the train is a Great Shark Monster that he is destined to one day kill. Mentally a child himself, Dickens like Jeliza-Rose, lives in a world within his fantasy filled mind. Unlike her though, he will never be able to grow out of it.
Jeliza-Rose's time in the prairies is brief and her interaction with other humans limited to the two siblings, but in that time she find herself exposed to things that would shock many adults. I get the feeling though the thing which has made the film gain mainly negative criticisms is the undercurrent of burgeoning sexuality. Jeliza-Rose is nearing puberty and the dawning of womanhood, she is not there and is still an innocent, but it looms close. Jeliza-Rose develops a childhood crush on Dickens who is in his mid 20's, and pecks at him with the kisses of childhood, again with all the innocence in the world and in fact his mental challenges make Jeliza-Rose the real power in their relationship. At one point she witnesses Dell copulating and performing fellatio on a delivery guy. As with any child she is not offended because only the tainted can be offended, it’s very difficult to offend innocence as sexual hang-ups and prudishness are the things we adults put onto children. And before anyone cries, everyone is fully dressed and obviously they didn’t really do anything in front of the young actress. It’s just a film, as much a fantasy as those the young character creates in her mind. The problem, I guess, is that while it’s perfectly acceptable for Guillermo del Toro to cast the similarly aged Ivana Baquero in Pan's Labyrinth. A film which features some fairly extreme graphic violence in places, sex remains a huge taboo. Which is funny because everyone will be exposed to sex in their life, but the level of violence seen in the likes of del Toro's film will be witnessed by a relatively low percentage of people who are born and grow up in the western world.
While watching Gilliam’s film, the two films that came to mind were John Duigan's Lawn Dogs and Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Innocence. Lawn Dogs because it to deals with a plutonic relationship between a young girl and a grown man (and the results) and Innocence which is hard to sum up here, but kind of deals with a perceptions of pre-pubescent girls and innocence. Both are films I recommend you see and both make good companion pieces to Tideland.
I personally enjoyed Tideland, it took me a while to get into but once I did I found the setting interesting and the performances strong. I don't think its a match for Gilliam’s best and it does fall short of what it could have been (I think there was a masterpiece in the combining of Gilliam and this story, but for some reason, probably financing problems and budget restraints, it misses out on those lofty heights). I think better realized fantasy elements would have endeared the film to more people, as they have with Pan's Labyrinth. Gilliam's choice to keep the film very grounded and lay off the fantastic elements he is famous for, was a commercial, and to some extent, cinematic mistake. However, I have to go against the tide (pun intended) and say this is a good bit of challenging filmmaking from a director -now in his 60's - something shamefully lacking from the works of people half his age.