We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

At a moment in which all varieties of child abuse, from torture-murder to bawdy IMs, have become American fixations, both Tideland and Running With Scissors qualify as horror movies. They’re the stories—one “true,” the other gleefully not—of abandoned children and parents who write new chapters in the history of neglect. Only one of these domestic shockers is likely to draw a significant crowd, and it’s the one that won’t last: the glib, unconvincing Running With Scissors. Already one of Terry Gilliam’s worst reviewed films, Tideland will probably perish at the box office. But this blackly comic, gloriously cluttered fairy tale deserves to be seen on the big screen before it goes to video—where it, like the director’s once-reviled and now-beloved Brazil, is likely to enjoy a long and eventful life.

Adapted by Gilliam and co-writer Tony Grisoni from Mitch Cullin’s novel, Tideland is very nearly a one-girl-show: the astonishingly self-possessed Jodelle Ferland, who turned 10 during the shooting, plays Jeliza-Rose, who finds herself alone in a decaying farmhouse nestled in Texas grasslands. Ferland also provides the voices of Jeliza-Rose’s best friends, four doll heads named Mystique, Sateen Lips, Glitter Gal, and Baby Blonde, so that entire scenes involve just one actress, a few small pieces of molded plastic, and multi-character conversations—some of them clearly derived from TV melodramas. (These sequences suggest a Southern Gothic Almodóvar, albeit with a little girl’s sense of dress-up rather than a drag queen’s.) Gilliam’s first child-eyed film since 1981’s delightful Time Bandits, Tideland is much gamier than that romp, but has a similarly anarchic sense of play.

Jeliza-Rose does have parents at first, but they’re junkies. In fact, the girl prepares their fixes, a narrative provocation meant to repel moralistic viewers in the film’s first five minutes. The more responsible of the supposed care-givers is Dad (Jeff Bridges), a blues-rocker who imagines himself a Norse warrior. When Mom (Jennifer Tilly) ODs, he sets the bed on fire in an approximation of a Viking funeral, then takes Jeliza-Rose by bus to the old family homestead. Soon, Dad also has a fatal shot, but Jeliza-Rose pretends not to notice. Between exploratory trips into the claustrophobic attic and the wide-open countryside, the girl remedies her father’s growing pallor with makeup and a blond wig, until he looks like a leathery Kurt Cobain.

Inside, Jeliza-Rose’s only companions are her doll heads and a cranky talking squirrel. Nearby, however, is a household that’s every bit as strange as her own. This is the home of Dell (Janet McTeer), a witchy, one-eyed taxidermist who frequently wears a beekeeper’s outfit, and her epileptic, mentally childish brother Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), who imagines himself a submarine captain destined to kill the “monster shark”—the train that rumbles past every day. In another scene that disturbs the easily disturbed, Dickens becomes Jeliza-Rose’s make-believe lover. Not to worry. Tideland maintains a prepubescent worldview, and Jeliza-Rose can’t imagine the sort of genuinely sexual acts that apprehensive viewers will fear they’re about to witness. The saga ends not with anything dirty but an event that Dickens says will be cleansing: “the end of the world.”

Tideland is not exactly narrative-driven, but it is constantly in motion. As Nicola Pecorini’s camera swivels madly through a succession of akimbo angles, Gilliam layers the visual and literary references: Andrew Wyeth landscapes, Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” and Alice in Wonderland among them. (Jeliza-Rose really does fall down a rabbit hole, although it’s one littered with trash and used syringes.) There’s also a quick evocation of Un Chien Andalou, as well as a scene that suggests 1993’s Fearless, a film in which the Jeff Bridges character emerges unharmed from catastrophe. Amusingly, this movie can be seen as a reproach to the Gilliam-directed (but not conceived) The Brothers Grimm. Where that flop denatured fairy-tale terrors into a standard Hollywood testament to “belief,” Tideland is the sort of untidy fable a modern Brothers Grimm might tell, extolling the sovereignty of imagination and the resilience of children.

Gilliam has noted that many people like Tideland more on a second viewing. At least in my case, he’s right, although not for the reason he offers: that watchers can relax since they’re already aware that no direct harm will come to Jeliza-Rose. That may be a factor, but just as significant is that the film has such a hectic, diverse surface that it’s hard to focus on its essence. The first time I saw the movie, I was transfixed by its look and energy but found the Alice in Wonderland stuff a little labored and Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna’s score overdone. On another viewing, those distractions receded into the jumbled mise-en-scène as Jeliza-Rose’s story (and Ferland’s performance) emerged, revealing that the film has tenderness to balance its wicked humor. “Enjoy it more the second time” is probably not a money-making tag line, but considering that most contemporary movies are so thin that they’re scarcely worth watching once, Tideland’s complexity is no small achievement. A cackling assault on America’s coddled inner child, the movie is both an affront and an act of generosity.

Although it has no supernatural elements, Running with Scissors is barely more tethered to reality than Tideland. The movie is based on Augusten Burroughs’ memoir, yet writer-director Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck) seems less inspired by the book than by the films of Wes Anderson, especially The Royal Tenenbaums. The director relies heavily on vintage rock—mostly soft and from the early ’70s, although the bulk of the film is set in 1978–1980—and even enlists Tenenbaums alumna Gwyneth Paltrow for a supporting role. He also shares Anderson’s sense of pacing, which is to say, none.

Augusten (Joseph Cross) is the son of high-strung Deidre (Annette Bening), who imagines herself a major poet, and bewildered Norman (Alec Baldwin), who imagines what it would have been like to have a normal wife and son. A poetry club where she counsels women to “get the rage on the page” is not enough release for Deidre; she turns to therapy with eccentric Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), who asks about sex, thoughts of suicide, and bowel movements while casually dispensing Valium. Soon, Norman is gone, and Deidre decides she wants to be even more alone. She sends Augusten to live with Finch and his family in their decrepit Addams Family–style manse. The boy is befriended by Finch’s younger daughter, Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), and observed coolly by the older one, Hope (Paltrow). Then Augusten, who’s only 14, begins an affair with another of Finch’s adoptees, 30-something Neil (Joseph Fiennes). It’s inappropriate, of course, but then so is everything that happens in the Finch home, from Natalie’s experiments with electroshock to her mom’s (Jill Clayburgh) snacking on dog chow.

Music aside, the filmmakers worked overtime to evoke the period. Dark Shadows reruns are on TV, Lina Wertmüller flicks play at the local arthouse, and cans of Tab keep thrusting themselves in front of the camera. The movie’s impact depends primarily on Bening and Cross, however, and neither is especially plausible. Bening plays Deidre’s various breakdowns energetically, but she’s just doing a variation on her monster-mom role in American Beauty; her performance will be acclaimed more for its “brave” dislikability than its insight. As for 14-year-old Augusten, where is he? Cross, who’s now 20, might have still been a teenager when he played the role, but his youthful looks are more young adult than kid.

That’s one reason that, throughout the film, Augusten never appears hurt, threatened, or otherwise at risk, emotionally or physically. Another is that the narrative has no urgency and little emotion. Like a Wes Anderson film, Running With Scissors proceeds as a series of skits, way too cool and ironic to be disturbing, no matter how aberrant the latest development. If this is a true story, it’s one recalled at such a distance that it no longer seems particularly important or even interesting.CP