Sunday, November 05, 2006

Tideland: a review

At the start of Tideland, director/co-screenwriter Terry Gilliam appears in black and white, in a small cube dead center of the screen. He warns the audience that some of this could be offensive and that some of us will hate it. But that even more of us will love it and not to be afraid to laugh. He says that the entire film is told from the perspective of a child, and to put away EVERY adult preconception of life that we have. These are ideas that children don't have. This child is innocent, and children are resilient.

This is not a film I could laugh in, except for one or two sequences which were more nervous laughter then anything else. A few people on the half-filled, comfortable screening room in the IFC Film Center could do that, but that didn't happen very often. This is also not a film I could hate, though it's difficult for me to ever get comfortable with it. I'm ok with that. I'm also ok with the idea that I'll probably be the only one I know who will like it, and that some people I recommend this to will look at me as though I have a severed head. I understand that this film is probably an acquired taste. It just so happens that it fits my taste as well.

Jodelle Ferland turns in the best performance I've seen in my lifetime from a child actor. She plays Jeliza-Rose, the daughter of drug addicts. Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Tilly play the parents, and I think it's no coincidence that they're made to look like a middle aged Kurt Corbain and Courtney Love on their last legs. Jeliza-Rose doesn't go to school, but she has learned how to cook up Dad's heroin. And she knows how to step into her fantasy world with her only friends, a set of bodyless dolls heads.

After Mom dies, Dad and daughter go to his late mother's abandoned, decrepit home. The country side of Saskatchewen forms another character here. One part filled with little lifeforms, one part oppressively isolated to the point that you'd think Tom Hanks had an easier chance to rejoin the world in Cast Away. Here, Jeliza-Rose becomes more of a modern-day Alice in Wonderland (the metaphor keeps hitting like a ton of bricks off and on throughout the film), diving deeper into her fantasy world.

It's an unconscious, reflexive escape that she makes there, but it does shield from the harsh reality surrounding her. At first Jeliza-Rose mouths what her dollhead friends say, but soon she hears their voices on her own, complete with their own personalities. Ferland does the voiceovers as well, and there is enough differences in each voice that you buy it. The fantasy world also distorts what kind of threat the only nearby neighbors can be. A strange woman (Janet McTeer) who you might confuse as a witch if you were little, and her brother, who might have some form of mental retardation, but bears an obvious lobotomy scar. He's played by Brendan Fletcher, and if you haven't seen him in such family fare as RV and Freddy Vs. Jason, you'd never know he was acting.

I can imagine parents or hyper-sensitive adults having a problem with this film, but I hope not. The key is to remember that this is all being told thru an eight or nine year old's perspective. We as adults understand what it means when her father goes on his heroin "vacation", or if the retarded guy takes a little kiss as a license to want to do more to/with her. She's not dumb, but she doesn't have the life experience to understand this yet. That's probably where Gilliam succeeds in getting us to squirm in our seats the most.

Throwing away adult pre-conceptions, as Gilliam strongly suggests, does provide the viewer with a quality film experience. It still leaves me uncomfortable, thinking about some sequences. But it still has me thinking about it still, playing out vividly at times. Can't say that about a lot of films.

I wish I had seen this sooner, since it seems to be leaving NYC shortly as of this writing. If it doesn't keep playing as a late night movie at IFC Film Center, it might play at a small, hole-in-the-wall, independent theater. But chances are, anyone reading this will probably only see this on TV. A shame. It would be more comforting to sit with some people while watching this, even with strangers. It would be a bigger shame to miss this entirely, especially if the major hangup keeping you from seeing Tideland, is you.

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