‘Tuesday’ Review: Julia Louis-Dreyfus Kills It in Grim Modern Fable

Humanity’s greatest myths often emerge from our complete inability to understand something. We saw giant bolts of lightning fall from the clouds and we didn’t leap to the conclusion that it had something to do with electrostatic discharges. Instead we assumed somebody must have thrown them on purpose. And when we noticed that sometimes when you fall off a cliff or eat suspicious berries, your whole body will stop doing stuff — for like, ever — we developed the perfectly rational theory that somebody in a creepy cloak sneaks in when nobody is looking and takes your soul away. There is, in our minds, always somebody directly responsible for everything.

The good news is we understand a heck of a lot more about electrostatic discharges these days. But death remains a mystery. We don’t like it and we’ll do just about anything to avoid it, and yet so far death has a perfect 1.000 batting average. It comes for us all eventually, and so we tell stories that try make sense of this deeply unpleasant fact, to rationalize and humanize the idea that we are destined to lose the people we love, and we too will have to go sometime.

The latest film to personify Death and argue that it has a purpose is “Tuesday,” the debut feature from award-winning short filmmaker Daina O. Pusíc. In “Tuesday” Death is a bird that flies from dying creature to dying creature, waving their souls away and quickly moving on. It’s not human but it’s still kind of humanized: It hasn’t bathed in who knows how long, because the grind keeps it too busy for self-care, which speaks to some of us (go take a shower, you’ll feel better), and the incessant drone of everyone’s scariest thoughts, which Death cannot mute no matter how hard it tries, has left it emotionally isolated and prone to panic attacks. Anyone who’s been on social media for any length of time can relate.

The story kicks in when Death visits a dying teenager named Tuesday (Lola Petticrew, “She Said”). She isn’t afraid of the shape-changing supernatural parrot who has come to kill her. Instead she tells it a joke, and in doing so she makes a friend of Death, who spends the afternoon with her listening to rap music, sharing anecdotes about famous historical figures, and smoking out for the first time.

Tuesday isn’t afraid to die, although she sure is stalling a lot. That’s because her fraught, financially-unstable and emotionally walled-off mother Zora (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) isn’t home yet, and Tuesday wants to say goodbye. The problem is that Zora can’t handle a serious conversation about Tuesday’s mortality tonight, or ever. So in a fit of desperation Zora reveals Death to her mother and let’s just say she does NOT take it well.

Daina O. Pusíc’s thoughtful, beautiful screenplay retreads some familiar territory. While Death is hanging out with Tuesday it’s ignoring its responsibilities, and nobody on Earth is able to die until it’s back on the clock, which quickly proves catastrophic. This has been done many times before (heck, this isn’t even the first time a “Seinfeld” cast member was involved). “Death serves an invaluable function” is an understandable and probably accurate message, but if the movie stopped there it would be a little pat. And “Tuesday” isn’t pat.

Instead of resting on tried-and-true laurels, “Tuesday” spirals in strange and transformative directions, using Zora’s desperate reaction to Death coming for her daughter as a launching pad for surreal imagery and pained understanding. Daina O. Pusíc conjures magic out of this story, embracing the difficult with disquieting ease. The film’s steadfast commitment to inventing new images to illustrate ancient concepts pays off. There are moments when “Tuesday” evokes a live-action Studio Ghibli film, albeit one of the downbeat ones.

Alexis Zabe (“The Florida Project”) photographs the inherent gloominess of “Tuesday” with, as one might imagine, quite a bit of gloominess. But although much of the film is overcast and lonesome, the cinematographer develops some indelible images. The distinct and memorable visual effects, which bring Death to life and life to Death, remind us that spectacle is only one way to utilize these remarkable technologies. They are capable of so much more.

Lola Petticrew gives a grounded and intriguing performance but Julia Louis-Drefus does most of the heavy-lifting. Zora’s journey to accepting death is not typical by any stretch, and the actions she takes and the weirdness she endures aren’t easy to understand. But she makes them feel real. Her heartbreak and rage early in the film provide a counterpoint for her haunting silence later on. And then of course there’s Arinzé Kene, who provides the voice of Death, and spends the whole film balancing on the thin line between terrifying and terrific.

“Tuesday” may be one of the many stories that tries to decipher the mysteries of Death, and while none of us will know how close it comes to the truth until it’s far too late to report back with our findings, it’s got a truthful ring to it. Pusíc’s film rejects tidy platitudes and treats the subject with a grim matter-of-factness, which wisely underscores the film’s forays into the fantastic.

“Tuesday” never forgets that although Death is a part of life, and has an important purpose, it’s still profoundly sad and unpleasant. There’s no escapism here, just like there’s no escape from our final repose. But there is a sense that how we face mortality matters, and that maybe — after watching this strange and wonderful film — we’ll be better equipped for that moment.

“Tuesday” opens in limited release on June 7 and expands nationwide on June 14.

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