Tideland has the dubious distinction of being Terry Gilliam’s least popular film. However, there are those who love it. Michael Pailin, who has collaborated with Gilliam for decades but had nothing to do with this film, told his former Monty Python partner that Tideland was either the best thing he had ever done, or the worst, but he was not sure which. Because it features squirm-inducing scenes, including one in which a pre-teen girl kisses a mentally retarded man, the message boards for Tideland on IMDB.com are filled with comments claiming that it could only be of interest to pedophiles. Sarah Polley, who worked as a child actress for Gilliam in The Adventures of Baron Von Munchausen, famously published an e-mail exchange with the director in which she admonished him to not traumatize the young Canadian actress of his new film, as he traumatized her 17 years earlier.
I personally like Tideland, and it was a big hit at theater where I first saw it in Tokyo. But then Gilliam is one of my favorite directors, and until I saw The Brothers Grimm recently, I considered this my least favorite of his films. In its favorite, it is something like a “Time Bandits for Girls,” with the child of indifferent parents retreating into a world of fantasy. But while Kevin’s parents in Time Bandits were simply cold, preferring to talk about the household appliance they wanted rather than talk to their son, Jeliza-Rose’s parents in Tideland (Jeff Bridges and a delightfully hideous Jennifer Tilly) are junkies get their daughter to help them shoot up, and abandon their daughter not by ignoring her but by dropping dead from heroin overdoses. The accusations of glorifying child abuse and pedophilia, as forwarded by critics in the New York Times and elsewhere, are ludicrous to anyone who has watched the film with an open mind. The reason Jeliza-Rose gradually withdraws into a world of fantasy is because he reality is so shocking to her and the audience.
In many of Gilliam fantasy and reality start out as separate worlds that come crashing together through a burst of action, such as the knight on horseback that breaks through the door of Kevin’s closet in Time Bandits, and then the two worlds start to blend. There is no such moment in Tideland. The detour from reality is more gradual, and there is nothing to differentiate Gilliam’s own vision from that of Jeliza-Rose.
The few critics that did like the film, and even man of them that didn’t, praised the performance of Jodelle Ferland, who has to carry most of the film as Jeliza-Rose. While her acting is natural and unstrained, her Texan accent definitely is not, and got rather annoying rather quick.