The Turning Tide: Contemplating the Conclusion of HIGH TIDE
11 September 2011
Upon the release of her feature film High Tide (1987), director Gillian Armstrong stated in an interview, “[High Tide] ends on a high note—this one is definitely not a tragedy.” For anyone who’s ever seen this film, this comment is curious, or, perhaps more pointedly, baffling.
High Tide follows Lilli (Judy Davis), a down-on-her-luck nightclub performer who gets fired from her job early in the film because of her bad attitude and wild behavior. When her car breaks down, Lilli becomes stranded in Eden (NSW, Australia) where she rents a caravan while awaiting parts for her car’s repair. Lilli’s reckless behavior continues and one night, in a drunken stupor, she stumbles upon Ali (Claudia Karvan), a young girl also living the caravan park. Ali helps Lilli, who is barely able to walk, back to her caravan. The next day the two run in to each other again, but this time Ali’s grandmother, Bette (Jan Adele), interrupts their conversation. Upon seeing Bette, Lilli realizes this young girl is no stranger, but, in fact, the daughter she gave away years prior. High Tide takes off from this realization, as the unsuspecting Lilli now must confront all the feelings she locked away, including her love for her daughter and the pain involved in giving her up.
In the film’s conclusion, Lilli, in her newly repaired car, takes Ali with her when she leaves the caravan park. They drive into the night and stop for a bathroom break and food at a restaurant off the side of the road. Lilli goes to the bathroom and Ali enters the restaurant. But, as Lilli exits the bathroom, she heads directly back to her car and starts the ignition. For a moment, Lilli, as well as the audience, is unsure whether or not she will abandon Ali in the restaurant. Ultimately, Lilli goes inside, hugs her daughter, and the two sit at a table, hand in hand, as the camera zooms out.
While, this may initially seem a happy ending, upon closer examination High Tide does not end on the high note Armstrong claims. That’s not to say the ending is poor—in fact, particularly for its budget, High Tide is a well made film with a strong ending—, but it is tragic nonetheless. At the end, we leave Ali alone with her mother, the emotionally damaged, unstable, flat broke, unemployed, alcoholic Lilli. Is the audience supposed to feel uplifted by that?
Just as Bette mentions about midway through the film, nobody, including the audience and Lilli herself, “know which way [Lilli is] going to jump next.” Yes, in the final scene the audience may be lulled into thinking all those reckless jumps are behind Lilli, as she falters briefly when returning to the car and starting the ignition, but ultimately rejoins her daughter in the restaurant. Yet, is that final move on Lilli’s part really a significant point of change, or more of the same unbalanced behavior? Are we, the audience, supposed to forget the inner turmoil we’ve witnessed this woman living in as her raw emotions swing rapidly from moment to moment?
For example, the scene where Lilli confides in Mac (Colin Friels)—her “boyfriend” for some of the film— that Ali, “the little surfer girl,” is her daughter. The unbearable weight of unexpectedly reuniting with Ali causes this introverted woman to unload her biggest secret on this man who is of no real significance to her. Through their subsequent conversation, Lilli subtly and briefly exposes her pain, confusion, insecurity, and anger. As soon as Mac tries to comfort her, or refocus her thinking on the future, Lilli mentally, emotionally, and physically shuts down; she becomes still, quiet, and lifeless. In this one scene, like so many, her pent-up emotions overpower her, and, as a result, she makes a severe emotional shift, without warning.
Moreover, in a scene shortly after, when Lilli takes Ali to dinner and presents her with a book on surfing, more of the same behavior occurs. At dinner, Ali boasts about her father (not knowing that man is also Lilli’s dead husband, John) and reveals her passion to become a professional surfer like him. At first, Lilli tries being supportive of the young girl’s aspirations, but quickly becomes overwhelmed again by all the emotions she’s repressing. She darts into the bathroom where she becomes hysterical and numbs herself with a bottle of alcohol from her purse. Similar to the previous scene, when feeling becomes too painful for Lilli, she either shuts down, or numbs herself.
Thanks to a remarkable performance by Judy Davis, the audience realizes this turmoil is Lilli’s life, day-in, day out, and Armstrong’s use of camera, specifically on Davis, supports viewers’ understanding of the tumultuous Lilli. Often, Armstrong uses tight close-ups in those fleeting moments when Lilli reveals thoughts or feelings she too often locks away. The aforementioned scene with Mac is one of those moments. Moreover, Armstrong also uses close-ups during non-verbal moments, such as when Lilli realizes Ali’s identity or when Ali confronts Lilli about being her mother.
Additionally, high angles recur to reinforce Lilli’s struggle. When Lilli darts to the bathroom, away from Ali’s conversation about surfing, the camera captures the action in a high angle. Crouched in a stall, the camera peers down on Lilli as she swigs from her bottle. This angle emphasizes Lilli’s powerlessness to the depression, fear, and heartbreak piled on top of her.
Although Armstrong claims the film ends on a high note, she effectively uses her camera technique to highlight Lilli’s unrestrained vulnerability, anxiety, and fear, which makes Lilli’s decision to take Ali in the conclusion anything but a high note.
However, not ending on a high note is, partly, what makes High Tide worth the watch. What is remarkable about High Tide is it tells a real story; a story about a flawed person who simply cannot meet the expectations placed upon her. Even though she is unraveling, Lilli is highly relatable to the audience simply because her exposed imperfections. If the ending of High Tide is supposed to be a high note it betrays its main character; a cookie-cutter ending that turns all the wrongs into rights is not a fitting conclusion for the story captured in the film. High Tide ends as tumultuously as it begins, which fits the new journey Ali and Lilli find themselves on as they venture off together, for the first time, into the night.