Tideland is a dark, disturbing film by Terry Gilliam, one that takes place entirely in this world and yet is still a quintessentially Girls Underground story, with the only ‘supernatural’ elements being the products of the protagonist’s strange mind, and the eerie quality of the life she stumbles into, and the people who inhabit it.
Young Jeliza-Rose has never had an ordinary life. Her parents are drug addicts (neglectful in the extreme, even when they are right there with her), and when her mother overdoses one night, her father’s response is to burn the house down and flee to his abandoned childhood home in rural Texas. (On the bus ride there, she reads Alice in Wonderland to herself.) Once there, her father quickly overdoses as well, and his body remains in a chair in the living room, slowly rotting. Jeliza-Rose either doesn’t understand what’s happened (he is unconscious half the time anyway, normally), or doesn’t want to accept it, because she continues to talk with him and act as if he’s merely resting.
In the meantime, she spends her days playing with her companions, little dismembered Barbie doll heads that she wears on her fingers like puppets or lines up in a row, each one talking with a different voice. She also meets the neighbors and acquires a new companion – mentally challenged Dickens – who she plays with in the tall grass all day. His older sister Dell, who looks like nothing more than an evil witch with her blinded eye and black veil, finds Jeliza-Rose’s dead father (who she knew when they were younger) and decides to preserve his body like a taxidermied animal (she has plenty of those, too). They all clean up the old, decrepit house and eat together like a happy family, complete with her stuffed father, but Dell is always somewhat threatening.
Meanwhile, Jeliza-Rose flirts with Dickens as they play, and they develop a sort of love that is both childish, touching, and kind of alarming, considering he has a man’s body even with a child’s mind. It is slowly revealed that Dickens has a secret, too, one that will provide a catastrophic climax to the story.
I cannot really do justice to the weirdness and depth of this movie – it is Gilliam at his best in my opinion, no budget but unrestrained in subject matter. He hits on something essential about the GU story by fully embracing her point of view rather than an outside perspective. She is abandoned, surrounded by lunatics, and half crazy herself, and yet she is mostly content in the world she inhabits. As Gilliam says in the introduction to the film, “This film is seen through the eyes of a child. If it’s shocking, it’s because it’s innocent.”