Tuesday (A24, R)

As someone who has lost a parent to cancer, I can confidently say that Tuesday is one of cinema’s most honest and original takes on grief ever. It’s mainly focused on the space between denial and acceptance, as Zora (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is in major denial about the likely outcome of her teenage daughter Tuesday’s (Lola Petticrew) terminal illness. When Death (voice of Arinzé Kene) arrives in the form of a talking, size-shifting macaw parrot, the line between reality and metaphor blurs in surprising and rewarding ways for those who are willing to sit with as much darkness as this film presents.

We enter the story at a point where Zora and Tuesday are at cross purposes. Tuesday has all but accepted her fate, and while she’s blazingly sarcastic, she also possesses an equanimity that her mother finds inexplicable. Zora can’t even bring herself to tell her daughter the truth about how she’s put every other aspect of her life and finances on hold to care for her. She’s fibbing and not even looking Tuesday in the eye, that is until Death (the bird) appears. When this Grim Reaper spirit flies into her path, Tuesday’s response is to cajole it with knowing affection, jokes, and music, all in an attempt to pad out her own life expectancy for the sake of her mother. It creates this dynamic between the three characters which allows the film to elevate well beyond its first-floor metaphor.

It is absolutely astonishing that this is writer/director Daina O. Pusić’s feature-length directorial debut. Tuesday is a lot of things, but what it isn’t is manipulative. It would have been so easy to layer in heavy strings over the film’s most resounding emotional moments (every moment here is emotional in some way or another), but Pusić resists that urge every time. What we get instead is something much closer to the realities of grief — unexpected humor amid unexpected life lessons. On top of that, so many of these truths are communicated visually instead of being preached. For example, there’s a point at which Zora grows as big as Death (the bird) can, and Pusić and cinematographer Alexis Zabé purposefully frame in close quarters what would be a totally absurd image in any other context. There’s a reason we take that detour, just as there’s a reason for every other surprising layer here, right down to the brilliant use of Ice Cube’s classic “It Was a Good Day.”

When Tuesday hits its crescendo, all of the patient visual and thematic work Pusić has done up to that point pays off in a major way. We’re somewhere between the dreary and the dreamlike for much of the film’s runtime, but the dream starts to fade in proportion to Zora’s increasing bravery. I don’t think anyone other than Julia Louis-Dreyfus could have pulled off this role. Zora is sympathetic, but we have to understand why there’s friction in this specific mother-daughter relationship, and Louis-Dreyfus so strikingly leans into the parts of Zora that annoy her daughter without alienating us as an audience. Hers and Lola Petticrew’s earth-shattering performances are what make the film’s shifts in perspective work so flawlessly. We see the pain from the tenor of this relationship through Tuesday’s eyes, and we see the reasons for that tenor through Zora’s.

Tuesday certainly isn’t summer escapism, but if you’ve had any experience with grief, you will probably see some part of yourself reflected in it. Its constant risk-taking only makes it that much more memorable, and its pitch-perfect tone only adds to its profundity. As far as I can tell, there isn’t anything quite like this movie in the history of cinema. Its honesty knows no bounds. | George Napper

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