An early scene in the small-scale and adventurous Tuesday reveals that Zora, the single mom played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, knows how to bargain. That’s good, because soon she’ll be bargaining with Death. And it’s especially good to see this gifted actor channel her brilliant knack for comic neurosis into dark, weird territory that’s steeped in grief and its seven stages.
Daina O. Pusić, a London-based writer-director who hails from Croatia, takes a courageous leap into allegory and performance-based animation with her first feature-length film. Tuesday, named for Zora’s dying teenage daughter (Lola Petticrew), is a straightforward, uncluttered fusion of mother-child drama and magic realism. In what is essentially a three-hander, Death is a world-weary macaw who can shrink and grow effortlessly, an outstanding VFX creation voiced with engaging seriousness and heart by Arinzé Kene (I’m Your Woman).
The Bottom Line
Go with it.
With a nod to the indelible modern classic Wings of Desire, Pusić begins the film up above the planet, and zeros in on an eye. But it’s not the eye of a human or even a watchful angel — it belongs to a tiny macaw that will, in the next breath, become a giant macaw. Moving with purpose, if a bit of exhaustion as well, it has visits to pay to people suffering alone on the streets or in their homes, people whose time has come to die. This is Death, and the soundscape that opens the movie is the cacophony of human voices in his head — the sound of everyone’s pain, as the bird will describe it to Tuesday.
Lily Tuesday Markovich, who has been ill for years and is tended to by a young, observant nurse (Leah Harvey) while her mother, Zora, engages in an elaborate game of avoidance, understands precisely what is going on when the bird enters her bedroom. But soon she’s given him a reason, for the first time in countless years, to speak using actual words rather than his usual guttural grunts. And she helpfully offers a bubble bath to solve the problem of the sticky goo covering his talons (contracted on a previous mission). In an enchanting sequence, Death shrinks to just an inch or two high and swoops into the sink to rinse off, eons’ worth of soot and grime released into the water as he swims.
Refreshed and back to his orange-and-scarlet feathered glory, Death appreciates the quiet he experiences in Tuesday’s presence after the nonstop soundtrack of people crying for relief. But still. He has a job to do, and Tuesday understands. He grants her the chance to call her mom to say goodbye. But Zora, deep in denial, isn’t answering her phone.
An American resident of London, Zora spends her days pretending to work but doing nothing in particular in cafes and parks. Louis-Dreyfus is deft at conveying that there’s nothing leisurely or relaxed about these hours, the pain and worry evident on Zora’s face and in her every gesture. Her most purposeful errand is a trip to a taxidermist’s shop to sell a couple of stuffed rats dressed as, why not, Catholic bishops — the kind of deadpan comic material that Louis-Dreyfus excels at, but which in these circumstances, even as Zora is intent on securing the best price, is infused with a desperate sorrow.
Back on the homefront, Zora lapses into blathering self-absorption and even Billie, the nurse, comments on her need to devote more quality time to her daughter. When Tuesday asks to talk with her mother, Zora tries to push it off until tomorrow. But Tuesday knows there won’t be a tomorrow, and with no other options, Death, back in teensy form and waiting patiently in Tuesday’s ear, expands to immense proportions. It takes Zora a while to understand who and what she’s facing, but soon, a battle to the, um, death is on.
Over a series of various triumphs and reversals, both Death and Zora will be transformed. And then there’ll be that chance to use her bargaining skills to try to extend her time with the daughter she desperately loves, and without whom she can’t even imagine who she is. Through it all, Petticrew (Wolf), as the grown-up in the room, exudes a quiet, beyond-her-years self-possession as well as understandable frustration when her mother needs time to catch up.
Death itself is a marvelous creation by the visual effects team led by Mike Stillwell and Andrew Simmonds, fascinating and engaging from the get-go, his gaze nothing short of soulful. And Kene’s performance is as lovely as it is fierce, from the rumbling depths of his voice to the goofy laugh and especially the thoughtful silences.
As a woman who has pushed away a lot of hard truths, Louis-Dreyfus delves into a sphere of emotion that she’s never before explored onscreen. She gives us not just the psychology but the feelings of fear, loss and resilience that infuse Tuesday, a story with the sensibility of a Eastern European fairy tale. She’s a performer whose radiant ferocity has never been in doubt, but until now we haven’t seen all sides of the prism.