One of the beauties of Gillian Armstrong's "High Tide" (Fine Arts)--an intense and rich Australian film--is the way it continually plays against expectations. It's a family drama about the painfully awakened bonds between a teen-age daughter and the mother who abandoned her years ago for a life on the road, but the movie is almost empty of sentimental cliches or programmed heart-tugging.
The core of the story is the eternal clash between roots and rootlessness. In bringing that out, Armstrong exposes the kind of blood ties that pull inexorably, like the tide itself. She paints a world of liveliness and pain, lyricism and defeat, sea-shadow and sunlight. And all of it quivers and sings with life. Armstrong spins the conventions around. Her directorial style, going against the tender grain of stories like this, is dazzling, vigorous, bold. And, in portraying the relationship between mother Lilli (Judy Davis) and daughter Ally (Claudia Karvan), Armstrong and scriptwriter Laura Jones avoid both bathos and the tendency to romanticize rebellion.
The film is set in an Australian beach town--all pure blues, greens and pounding surf--but it's deliberately shot on cloudy days, giving it a conflicting sense of dreariness and exhilaration. There's some caustic satire in the screenplay, mostly in the way the adults are drawn: as overgrown adolescents, obsessed with TV, rockabilly and movies. The kids, mercifully, are more spared. Karvan gives Ally a grave, pure honesty and grace that makes her one of the few appealing teen-agers in recent movies.
The movie follows two strands that finally twist together. Ally lives in a trailer camp near the surfing beaches. Lilli, her mother, becomes stuck there after being temporarily dropped from her tour with a fifth-rate oldies rock band; she's one of three deadpan blonde-wigged backup singers who accompany a deliciously absurd and paunchy rocker with an Elvis hairdo (Frankie J. Holden).
Davis plays Lilli as a wasted, reckless, lyrically drunken misfit. It's a genuinely great performance, authentic and almost frighteningly moving. Davis does nothing to pretty this character up. She plays Lilli so baldly, which such fierce commitment, that, by turns, you're charmed and repelled. When she sprawls drunkenly under a sink in a public toilet, singing Bob Dylan's "Dark Eyes," it's a moment of almost draining compassion and something near fear. We can pity Lilli and simultaneously sense the kind of panic she arouses in Ally's guardian and grandmother, Bet (Jan Adele).
Bet has both a grotesque and a loving side. She sings, too, in brassy mimicry of '50s American pop balladry. Yet it's part of the film's generosity that it can reveal Bet's intolerant impulses and Lilli's destructive ones, and keep your sympathy for both.
Armstrong and cameraman Russell Boyd keep charging up the scenes with tricks, weird angles and swift, unexpected movement. They scoot the camera along the beaches like a crazed gull, and along the highways as if on a runaway car. They style the movie almost as if it were a road picture or a rock musical. They give it a bravura spirit appropriate to a celebration of youthful rebellion--while simultaneously showing that Lilli's rebellion is past, that life on the road has almost left her a spent, used-up woman on the edge. Yet "High Tide" (MPAA-rated: PG-13) is not about dead ends, but possibilities. Guided by of Gillian Armstrong and Judy Davis we can peek into the abyss, and still never lose sight of the sun blazing down overhead.