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‘Tuesday,’ with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is strange, emotional and fiercely original

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a scene from “Tuesday” (A24)

Death has taken many forms in cinema. It’s been portrayed by actors like Bengt Ekerot, Ian McKellen, John Cleese, and even Brad Pitt. In “Tuesday,” filmmaker Daina O. Pusić’s bold debut, death looks like a worn-out macaw.

Covered in grime and missing feathers, “Tuesday’s” Death can be as big as a room or as small as an ear canal. Its booming, gravelly voice, provided by actor Arinzé Kene, is ancient and otherworldly, creating a profoundly unsettling presence. It’s not a comforting welcome into the afterlife.

“Tuesday,” which expands nationwide Friday, explores death and acceptance between a mother and her dying daughter. This is no Hallmark affair; it’s prickly, wry, somewhat unsentimental, gritty, and painfully realistic. You might find yourself in tears as a result.

A parent coming to terms with a child’s imminent death is emotionally charged territory. Thankfully, “Tuesday” is filled with immense creativity and vision, both in front of and behind the camera. This includes the writer-director and the special effects team responsible for Death, as well as the haunting and innovative sound design.

Lola Petticrew plays the titular Tuesday, a teen with a “Breathless” pixie cut, a love of jokes and rap music, and a terminal illness that confines her to an oxygen tank and a wheelchair. Her mother, Zora (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), is disconnected from the situation. She tiptoes around the house, leaving the care to nurse Billie (a lovely Leah Harvey). Zora pawns household items to pay for care, ignores Tuesday’s calls, and occasionally sleeps on park benches. At home, she avoids talking to Tuesday about serious matters, repressing everything and driving everyone crazy.

The day we meet Zora and Tuesday is the day Death arrives. Billie leaves Tuesday on the patio briefly, and the girl has an episode, gasping for air, when the macaw lands by her side. Death is the first character introduced in an unnerving series of deaths, setting an ominous tone. Some characters are ready to go, some are scared, but all have the same outcome once Death claims them.

Tuesday, however, decides to tell Death a joke. This disarms Death, and they start a conversation. She gives Death a bath, plays music, and asks for a favor: to say goodbye to her mom first. Death obliges.

The story becomes a combination of body horror, fairy tale, domestic drama, and apocalypse thriller. It is weird and transfixing, never predictable or boring. Louis-Dreyfus is both chilling and deeply empathetic as Zora, a woman paralyzed by grief even before her daughter’s death. She seems to be preparing for her own death, unable to process life without her daughter. Petticrew holds her own, going head-to-head with Louis-Dreyfus, exhibiting wisdom beyond her years.

“Tuesday” is ultimately a cathartic experience, whether death is top of mind or not. It marks the arrival of a daring filmmaker worth following. LINDSEY BAHR, Film Writer, MDT/AP

“Tuesday,” an A24 release in theaters nationwide Friday, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for language. Running time: 111 minutes.

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