Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/27/06 10:13:52

"An exciting trip down the rabbit hole."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2006 BOSTON FANTASTIC FILM FESTIVAL: Terry Gilliam makes films about fractured realities; it's what he's good at. That's what "Tideland" is, and while it's possible to look at it and say he's a one-trick pony, he's also better at it than just about anybody else.

There probably isn't a really healthy mind to be found in any of the characters, although 10-year-old Joiza-Rose probably has the best shot at one. That's despite a pair of fairly scuzzy drug-addict parents: Her mother resents Rose, so she's much more fond of her father, who plays in a band and talks of someday moving the family to Jutland, where the Vikings came from... And also has his daughter prepare and administer the heroin he uses to go on his "vacations". After the mother's sudden death, he packs Joiza-Rose up and flees to Grandma's house. She's not there, though, and Joiza-Rose spends a great deal of time on her own, looking to next-door neighbors Dell and Dickens for company.

As good as Gilliam is at this kind of movie, it rises and falls based on the work of Jodelle Ferland, the child actress playing Joiza-Rose. Joiza-Rose is scrappy enough to mostly take care of herself when the adults in her life are basically useless, but despite that she doesn't fit the usual model of a kid forced to grow up too fast - as cute and imaginative as the character is, she can also be shockingly callous and prone to violent mood swings. The really neat trick that Miss Ferland does is to sell us on just how much denial and delusion Joiza-Rose is capable of without making her seem stupid. She doesn't overstate anything except for when a kid might - she's occasionally loud or annoying, but what kids aren't? There's no desperation for the audience's approval or love, just a kid looking like a normal kid even though she's cracking up.

Her breakdown is all the more remarkable because Gilliam lets Ferland handle it on her own, for the most part. My expectations for a Terry Gilliam film titled Anything-Land showing at a Fantastic Film Festival run more toward elaborately realized fantasy worlds than what Tideland actually delivers. While there's certainly some unusual imagery (including a great underwater sequence), even Joiza-Rose recognizes the most fanciful as dreams. Rather than giving us obvious visual cues to just how far down the rabbit hole Joiza-Rose has gone, Gilliam makes us watch her and try to figure out how much is normal childish make-believe and how much is a complete retreat. The most obvious clue that she's losing his grip is that when she's having conversations with her imaginary friends (four heads ripped off fashion dolls, because she's that kind of little girl), her lips don't move toward the end like they do in the beginning.

Jodelle Ferland isn't the only one giving a fine, off-center performance. Jeff Bridges is charmingly disreputable as Joiza-Rose's father, who is obviously not one for keeping up his paternal responsibilities but is beloved by his daughter because he speaks to her without being condescending.. Janet McTeer perhaps goes a little overboard in being weird and gothy as Dell, but when the writers see fit to dress a character in black, including a beekeeper's veil because she got stung as a child and is paranoid about it happening again, and then give her taxidermy as a hobby, the actress probably doesn't need to add twitchy on top of that. She's doing good work underneath the twitchiness, but it's sometimes a little much. Brendan Fletcher is pretty good as Dell's mentally stunted brother Dickens. It's kind of a familiar portrayal, but he does a nice job of struggling toward the end, knowing something is wrong but not quite sure why.

What he's struggling with is going to make some audience members uncomfortable, both for the actual content and because it sort of comes out of nowhere. It's believable enough, and seeing Joiza-Rose become more aggressive around Dickens certainly helps to quickly dispel the idea that we're seeing a movie about isolated misfits who are fine as long as they have each other. We need responsible adults, the film seems to say, because children and adults with their own psychic scars can't help but lead each other astray; left unchecked, they'll become dangers to themselves and others. The last act serves to hammer that home, with a warning shot that depicts a different kind of danger than the final result.

Indeed, this struck me as somewhat darker than a typical Gilliam film, even though the wide open fields around the run-down house are beautiful and Jozia-Rose is, regardless of her faults, a very sympathetic main character. The things warping the characters' lives come from their own minds and families, and there's really no one that the characters can attach to in hopes that they'll make it better. Images of death and decay linger with all their unpleasant details. It's sometimes darkly funny, but also much more real and familiar (and thus despairing) than much of Gilliam's work.

At the very least, it's a whole bunch better than "The Brothers Grimm", which he made at roughly the same time in an unusual outburst of productivity. It's also both a fine example and a nifty twist on the whole "indomitable spirit of a child" genre.

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