Director Terry Gilliam's movies usually have a distinctive style: if you're channel-surfing and encounter the middle of Time Bandits or 12 Monkeys, you instantly know it's a Gilliam film even if you can't figure out which one right away. Even The Brothers Grimm, perhaps Gilliam's weakest film, retains a diluted version of that style. But if no one had told me that Tideland was a Terry Gilliam film, I might not have guessed. Many of his usual themes are present, but the visuals and for the most part, the dialogue, are not quite in his usual style.

Tideland is also an exceptionally difficult movie to watch, much harder than Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which was stylized and surreal and almost cartoonish at times. This movie contains some very real, appalling situations, which have the potential to leave you feeling repelled, disgusted, and uncomfortable. (Don't eat during the movie.) As a result, it took me at least 24 hours to realize that Tideland is a very good film, and although I didn't exactly like it, I'm glad I saw it. Some of the images and scenes can stick in your head for days. (It was the same experience I had after seeing Pulp Fiction: I loathed it for a couple of days, then realized the movie was still sticking with me, and eventually came to appreciate it.)

Eight-year-old Jeliza Rose (Jodelle Ferland) is at the center of Tideland -- she leads an awful life for a small child. At the beginning of the movie, she's living in a rundown apartment with her junkie parents, played by Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Tilly. Jeliza Rose tries to talk with her parents, curl up with Alice in Wonderland, or even get a good night's sleep, but her family situation prevents her from doing anything we might consider normal. Part of her daily routine is to prepare her father's injection for his "vacations" and to minister to her parents while they're on whatever drugs they're taking. Her father ranges from affectionate to forgetful, but her mother is downright abusive.

That's just the setup: it gets worse for Jeliza Rose. She and her father move to a half-collapsed old farmhouse in a deserted area, and Jeliza Rose has to fend for herself most of the time. Her "best friends" are a handful of Barbie-doll heads, with names like Mystique and Satin Lips, with whom she explores the attic and the fields outdoors. Jeliza Rose invents her own fantasy world so she won't have to deal with the increasingly nasty realities around her. Her fantasy world includes some disturbing elements, too, simply because she's basing it on the world she knows. Her fantasies originally help her to cope, but eventually start to lead her into perilous situations.

Tideland becomes even more challenging to watch in the last half-hour. Not only is the situation disturbing, but the movie's structure starts to fall apart, making the film seem too long and meandering. It's hard to understand where the movie is going, and if you're used to a clear narrative structure, it can be very frustrating.

Jodelle Ferland's performance as Jeliza Rose is impressive: the girl is in nearly every scene of the movie, and manages to maintain a consistent and interesting character. Tideland accurately depicts an eight-year-old girl's sense of play, although taken to extremes at times due to the situations around her. My only difficulty with Ferland was her accent -- I'm not sure what kind of accent it was supposed to be, and it sounded put-on and false at times. Part of the problem is that we're never told exactly what region we're in -- is the movie set in the South? the Midwest? Canada? -- and therefore her countrified accent doesn't make much sense.

There are bits of Tideland that reminded me of other Gilliam films. The Alice in Wonderland motif that is spread throughout the film is similar to the Pinocchio motif in The Fisher King -- these images are there for atmosphere more than for some deep symbolic reason, so far as I can tell. Jeff Bridges looks just like he did in parts of The Fisher King, although his role is unfortunately much more limited (I did wish Tideland included more scenes with Bridges in action). And the ending recalled Time Bandits, although that movie was a cheerful bit of escapism, whereas Tideland is grounded in harsh realities. Tideland was co-written by Tony Grisoni, and the theme of a young person trying to survive in a strange new reality is handled in similar ways to Brothers of the Head, which Grisoni also co-wrote.

I can't imagine that Tideland will draw large audiences or acquire a big following. I can imagine people leaving halfway through -- believe me, this made me far more uncomfortable than Clerks II, so Joel Siegel may have to duck out early. Gilliam appears to be trying to throw us all off-guard, to make the theatergoing experience unpleasant. Perhaps his experience with the Weinsteins on The Brothers Grimm drove him in the opposite direction, to a movie with anti-mass appeal, one that never takes the easy road. I'm not sure if I'll ever want to see Tideland again, and there are very few people to whom I would recommend the movie. But in its own unlovable way, the movie is an unforgettable experience.