Gillian Armstrong’s High Tide (1987) can be seen as a variant on the maternal melodrama. It centres around the struggles of a teenaged young mother who is unable to care for her daughter and abandons her to her mother-in-law. In classic maternal melodramas, the mother often gives up a daughter only to save her in some fashion (often without the daughter’s knowledge.) In High Tide; however, it is the teenaged daughter who accidentally stumbles upon her own mother, a lost drifter, an alcoholic and a drifter in a trailer park. High Tide also behaves differently than the standard maternal melodrama in its embrace of ambiguity – both moral and situational. It plays out as an arthouse film. Neither the audience nor the actors seem to know what is really going on and who is culpable, who is to blame. In this way, Armstrong transforms the maternal melodrama into a modern “women’s picture” of conflicting emotions. Set at the beach, its moods and atmospherics lull you into the strange film with the regularity of a tidal pull. The characters shift just as quickly and emotionally as the weather on the beaches of Australia. It’s a moody film. It’s a film made from a specifically female gaze and a film in female time, in female lensing.

Though the star of the film is a very young Judy Davis, it would be easy to say that the star is also the specifically female experience of mothering and daughtering and all the complexities that come with such relationships; the deadliness, the sweetness and all the flavors in between. When we first meet Lilli, played by Judy Davis, she’s wasted and lost. She even loses her itinerant job as a back-up singer for a terrible Elvis impersonator. Her primary relationship appears to be with a bottle of alcohol. She’s a washed up, sad, mean drunk. She cannot even hold onto her caravan and her car, much less her job as a back-up singer. She’s a forgotten woman, a drifter not unlike a female equivalent of the forgotten man in Hollywood films. No one sees her. No one feels her pain. She doesn’t appear to have any female friends, and she doesn’t seem interested in relying on any men either. She’s angry at the surface, but Davis plays her as if she is dying inside. It’s one of Davis’s best performances.

Stuck in a very small town called Eden on the coast of New South Wales, Lilli wanders around her trailer park, looking for her car and her caravan. She is without friends and without money, yet she snarls at anyone who makes an attempt to help her. In a run-down bathroom at the seaside trailer community called the Mermaid Caravan Park, Lilli runs into Ally (Claudia Karvan) whom (we learn much later) is actually her own teenage daughter. It takes a long time for us to figure out Lilli’s story, but she evidently ran away after her husband’s death and abandoned her daughter to be raised by her mother, Bet (Jan Adele). Here the film completely departs from maternal melodramas such as Stella Dallas. There is no suggestion that either mother or daughter are searching for one another. Quite the contrary, their meeting seems completely unplanned and random and is thus just as random as Davis getting fired by the Elvis impersonator. Life is random, the film seems to say and family is random. Love is happenstance. Relationships are unplanned and without mooring.  Life is ambiguous and yet we make meaning out of it.

High Tide often shifts in subjective POV between the mother and daughter, and we see Lilli through Ally’s eyes for considerably long sequences. She does not yet know she is her own mother, but for some reason she is both repelled and drawn to watching this drunken washed up and beaten-down drifter; she spends time following her and simply watching her without judging her. Lilli is a creature that she cannot help but be drawn to, even as Lilli is mean and cruel to her and pushes her away. All this takes place beside the breathtaking backdrop of the sea, with its warm panoramas and lush fluid warm lighting. The outward environment of the sea is ever-changing, as is the shifting moral inner environment of the women. Ally is just as unmoored as her mother, but it is expected for teenagers to be floating and always on the brink of trying on and becoming. It’s acceptable for her to spend her time floating around in a pool and living a carefree and unstructured life: she is a teen. Lilli, though, makes us anxious.  She has obviously survived a lot, but looks like she might die at any moment because of her own reckless behaviour and because society cares nothing for a lost and lonely alcoholic.

One man takes an interest in Lilli, he is played by Colin Friel, and he suggests that the two settle down. In a poignant scene, Lilli admits that Ally is her own abandoned daughter, but the situation is left unresolved, again disrupting the rules of the maternal melodrama. Instead of abiding by the rules of a genre film and offering opportunities to “save” the mother or child, Armstrong allows the situation to unfold more naturally. Life is more noirish and unpredictable. The mother-in-law is not keen on giving up Ally to a woman who doesn’t quite seem to be a fit parent, and it’s not even clear that Ally would want to join her mother in a newly made family unit.

The pain of abandonment is seen in both mother and daughter, and Armstrong doesn’t seem keen on covering up that pain or offering an easy solution through a plot contrivance. Similarly, the anger between Lilli and her mother-in-law is not smoothed over; instead they have a vicious and realistic fight scene. Ally wants to be a professional surfer, like her father was and the two scheme out a vague plan. The film ends ambiguously, with the mother and child making a clumsy getaway in a car, but we are still unconvinced that Lilli is quite ready to take care of her daughter, much less herself. Armstrong is to be commended for leaving her female characters just as they embark on the real work of growing up together, mother and daughter, two teens running in the night. As a final note, it’s a shame that this gorgeous film never made it to DVD, where it might have found a wider audience, though there are still outmoded VHS cassettes of the film available.

High Tide (1987 Australia 101 min)

Prod Co: Hemdale Film Corporation Prod: Antony I. Ginnane, Sandra Levy, Greg Ricketson, Joseph Skrzynski Dir: Gillian Armstrong Scr: Laura Jones Pho: Russell Boyd Mus: Peter Best Ed: Nicholas Beauman Art Dir: Ian Allen Cost: Terry Ryan

Cast: Judy Davis, Jan Adele, Claudia Karvan, Colin Friels, John Clayton, Frankie J. Holden

About The Author

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is an experimental filmmaker and Willa Cather Professor Emerita of Film Studies at University of Nebraska, Lincoln. She has written extensively on race, gender and class in film, experimental film, LGBT+ film, and film history. Among her many books is Experimental Cinema: The Film Reader, co-edited with Wheeler Winston Dixon. Her documentary on early women filmmakers, The Women Who Made the Movies, is distributed by Women Make Movies. Her award-winning hand-made films are screened around the world in museums, galleries and film festivals.

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