A look at “TUESDAY,” starring Lola Pettigrew and Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Daina O. Pusić’s feature debut, “Tuesday” is a film of no uncertain ambition. Exploring the impact of grief and mortality through the connection of a mother and daughter, the screenplay (written by the director) puts the audience into the mind of old man Death itself.

Voiced by Arinzé Kene, Death arrives in the form of a macaw, whose head is filled with constant discord from the voices of those about to die. Each parting soul sees him before their final moment, looking Death in the eyes as he raises his wing, unhurriedly wiping the life from their body. Their common link is that none of them are ready to die. Some are aggressively defiant, while others plead for more time. Having no choice, Death has grown used to his role and accepts what he is until he comes face to face with Tuesday, a terminally ill fifteen-year-old girl.

Tuesday (Lola Petticrew) is bedridden, save for a wheelchair. Knowing she won’t be alive much longer, she takes it in stride, manifestly. Her one note of sadness is about her mother, Zora (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss), distancing herself from a dying child. Zora cannot handle losing her little girl, so she pretends to be overloaded with work and is gone all the time. As her daughter clings to life, Zora is out and about, sitting alone, eating cheese, and selling off pieces of Tuesday’s life; any memory of happy times needing to be removed.

When Death comes to the dying teen, Tuesday isn’t afraid, but seemingly shocked that her time has come. Her instant reaction is to tell a joke, which makes Death laugh. It is a striking moment as two representations of the dark and the light meet, each one surprising the other. Of course, the young girl will ask for more time and Death will consider the request.

This is where “Tuesday” moves into Ingmar Bergman territory, with its examination of a conflicted Death and the seeming absence of God. Director Pusić draws power in the bond between mother and child. There are heartbreaking moments where Tuesday and Zora confront the weight of their impending separation. Petticrew and Louis-Dreyfus do strong work together in their scenes.

As a filmmaker, Pusić takes risks. In many cultures, birds are a metaphor for impending death. From The Bible to Edgar Allen Poe to many horror films, the arrival of a bird spells doom. Pusić’s use of Death in the form of a macaw is off-putting at first, but it lends a unique spin to how the character has been represented through the decades.

While “Tuesday” works on some levels, the film’s symbolic flourishes are overbearing. Death has a “dirty job” and a moment where Tuesday washes the blackness off of him is a silly metaphor. The same can be said for the screenplay’s stop-and-start commentary on the balance of life and death, which keeps society (and the universe) from crumbling. The film goes to great visual lengths to show how this imbalance could throw life’s very essence off course but refuses to follow up on these lofty issues, a frustrating slight.

While Julia Louis-Dreyfus is quite interesting and does some great work, I am not sure she was completely right for the role. Make no mistake, she is a fine actress, but not every performer is safe stepping outside their comfort zone. For Zora, the actress runs the gamut of emotion and mostly succeeds, but Louis-Dreyfus is not the type of performer to climb such a layred emotional mountain. There is a section of the film (which cannot be discussed here) where Zora goes to the greatest of lengths to protect her daughter from Death. The sequence is mishandled by the director, as it doesn’t know if it wants to be darkly comic or shockingly silly. Louis-Dreyfus cannot pull off these moments and we can see her struggling as director and star get lost in a messy montage of societal consequences and repercussions.

Pusić does better when finding the grace in the precious final minutes we share with our loved ones. In the film’s more sensitive moments, Petticrew and Louis-Dreyfus (and the screenplay) find a profound connection to the human condition and speak to how love must endure, even after death. Daina O. Pusić has crafted a powerful story of a mother and daughter in their final moments together. For a good part of the film, their journey of grief is profoundly moving and quite courageous.

Unfortunately, these weighty issues are too often bogged down in under-examined flights of fancy that fail to reach their intended dramatic heights and a screenplay that leaves us with too many questions. Just why is an American actress playing a mother with a British daughter living in England? Will the world end if humanity doesn’t collectively accept death? What of Tuesday’s underwritten caretaker (Leah Harvey, stuck with nothing to do) who comes and goes without reason? And the bees? The bees!

The narrative is too muddled to make anything truly cohesive, but if one peels back the film’s messy outer shell, there is a poignant message about cherishing life and accepting what we cannot change. Pusić has talent and shows depth as a filmmaker. “Tuesday” is not a bad film, but its emotional edges are too rough. This is a film of many intelligent ideas that, unfortunately, never comes together.

Director Daina Oniunas-Pusić

Director Daina Oniunas-Pusić

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